A visit to the enchanting ballet ‘Onegin’

Amsterdam, March 29th 2017

Onegin

Dutch National Ballet


”I am writing to you… need I say more?

Is there more I can say?

I realize you’re free now

to punish me with your contempt.”

In 1833 Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin was published for the first time. It turned out to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration. In 1879 Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin premiered and in 1965 the ballet Onegin by John Cranko followed.

On March 29th 2017 the opening night of the ballet performed by the Dutch National Ballet took place in Amsterdam, and I had to see it, of course!

The famous choreographer John Cranko first got the idea for the ballet in 1952 when he did the choreography for the dances in the opera Eugene Onegin, but it wasn't until 1965 that he was able to realise his dream, when he was working with the Stuttgart Ballet. And what a delightful ballet it has turned out to be! The tricky relationship between Onegin and Tatyana is wonderfully translated into dance, especially when they dance together in Tatyana’s dream in the second act. The folk dances in the first act are super contagious and a joy for the eye. A real masterwork.

Although the music is from Tchaikovsky, it isn't the same music as in the opera Eugene Onegin. The German composer Kurt Heinz Stolze arranged the musical score from different compositions by Tchaikovsky, glueing them together with leitmotifs. If you didn't know any better you would never suspect that, it was done so skilfully. Tchaikovksy’s music is, as always, magical, dramatic and vivacious.

The story is split into three acts:

In the first act the arrogant and bored St Petersburg dandy Onegin finds himself in the countryside. His friend Lenski introduces him to the sisters Olga and Tatyana. Olga is Lenski’s fiancee. The sweet and dreamy Tatyana falls head over heels for Onegin. She writes him a love letter.

In the second act Onegin tears up the letter. He is not interested in the simple and romantic Tatyana. To annoy Lenski, and a little bit out of boredom too, he tries to seduce Olga instead. Lenski challenges him to a duel and gets killed.

In the third act Onegin meets Tatyana again for the first time in years. Now she is married and the shining star of the St Petersburg society. He falls in love, he regrets the past, writes her a letter.. but now it’s Tatyana’s turn to tear up the letter and so Onegin is punished for his arrogance.

In order for the ballet to work, Pushkin’s story has been shortened and simplified. However, Tchaikovsky’s music and the artistic interpretation of the dancers, who have clearly studied their characters well, add an extra dimension.

The principals of the ballet were Anna Tsygankova as Tatyana, Jozef Varga as Onegin, Qian Liu as Olga en Remi Wörtmeyer as Lenski. I thought Qian Liu was absolutely adorable as Olga, I loved her expression and the apparent effortlessness with which she danced, no flew, across the stage.

The Dutch National Ballet is fantastic, so is the Ballet Orchestra and Onegin is an enchanting night out.

The photos are from bolshoirussia.com.

The fragment is from Tatyana's letter and was translated by Roger Clarke.

http://www.operaballet.nl/en/ballet/2016-2017/show/onegin

Would you like to read more about Pushkin? Click on the 'pushkin' tag below.

 

Typically Dostoevsky

Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called Realism. Next to Tolstoy and Turgenev the third giant in this genre is Dostoevsky (1821-1881) of course.

Literary History

The start of his career as a writer is legendary: after the military academy he knew that a military career was not for him and he started writing seriously as soon as possible. He gave his first novella, Poor Folk, to his friend Grigorovich to read. Grigorovich read it together with Nekrasov, the most influential critic at the time. They finished reading it at four in the morning. Their enthusiasm was such, that they went straight to Dostoevsky and woke him up. They congratulated him Russian style on his literary talents, and the rest is history…

Influences

Dostoevsky was mostly influenced by gothic and romantic writers such as Walter Scott, Ann Radcliffe, Dickens, Schiller, Pushkin and Karamzin. He, in turn, influenced writers like Kafka, Sartre, Bulgakov, Gide and Nietzsche. To name but a few. His most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was and is a favourite of Stalin, Camus, Joyce and Putin. It was lying on Tolstoy's nightstand when he died.

Before and after Siberia

Dostoevsky's work can be devided into two parts: before and after Siberia. In 1849 he was sentenced to four years of forced labour and another four years of exile in Siberia, due to his political engagements. His works from before Siberia are perhaps a bit more sentimental, more romantic. From this period we have Poor Folk, White Nights, The Double and Netochka Nezvanova. After Siberia he wrote The Player, The Idiot, The Possessed, Crime and Punishment and, of course, The Brothers Karamazov. These works are darker and more thought provoking.

Great psychological insight

Dostoevsky is well known for his psychological character studies. His characters often personify one of his ideas, like Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) represents his theory that a select group of people could decide what's right and wrong for the majority, even murdering a bad person to save other people. His character seems contradictory at first sight; gentle and compassionate, but at the same time calculating and cold. Naturally both sides are necessary to carry out the theory. Another major Dostoevskian idea is spiritual regeneration through suffering. Raskolnikov is torn by remorse and doubt after his horrible deed. He is sentenced to a prison camp in Siberia and finally after a few years he starts to feel regenerated.

Ordinary people, small talk and everyday situations? There's none of that with Dostoevsky. You will meet a whole lot of pawn brokers, prostitutes, failures, misfits, nihilists, religious fanatics, gamblers, murderers and hysterical women, sometimes combined into one character. Recurring themes are religion, redemption, the mighty rouble, the innocence of children, lost honour, suicide, alcoholism and epilepsy.

Punishment in Siberia

His involuntary stay in Siberia influenced him tremendously and Dostoevsky's work contains many autobiographical elements. In those days the labour camp was mixed, the political prisoners sat together with the criminals. The circumstances were almost unbearable and he learned a lot about people. He observed murderers from close by.

Style

His writing style is very enthusiastic. He talks to the reader, draws him into his exciting and scandalous story, and demands him to think about the big questions in life. He often had to finish his books before a certain deadline, to earn money to pay off his gambling debts. As a result his style is a bit hasty. He did not take the time, like Tolstoy, to endlessly revise. Most of the action takes place in the course of a few days and in a room full of people. As Nabokov has pointed out, this and the lack of background details, make his novels feel more like a play. He thinks Dostoevsky would have been better as a playwright.

In short

It's easy to recognise Dostoevsky; not a normal person in sight and everyone is in a heightened state of excitement. His novels are mostly written in the classical detective style. No detailed natural descriptions such as Turgenev wrote, only the most necessary. His characters don't go through any psychological growth, like Tolstoy's Pierre. But it's not all misery with Dostoevsky, he had a great sense of humour. He often gave his characters appropriate names; a 'raskolnik' for instance, is someone who separates himself, a nonconformist.

 

Dostoevsky is not for everyone, and not for every day either, but boring he is definitely not. Virginia Woolf described his work as follows:

 

“We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of Russian generals, their stepdaughters and cousins, and crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the top of their voices about their most private affairs.”

 

Books read: Geschiedenis van de Russische Literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Lectures on Russian Literature – Vladimir Nabokov

Photos and dates from Wikipedia

 

In the footsteps of Tolstoy and Turgenev in Paris

Ah Paris.. As I’m writing this I look out over the countless roofs of the city. I’m here to walk in the footsteps of two great Russian writers, two favourites of mine: Turgenev and Tolstoy. 150 years ago the journey from Russia to Paris took about ten days; for me it’s just over three hours by train from Amsterdam.

Pauline Viardot

Turgenev came to live in Paris (actually he lived there off and on for 36 years) to be close to his objet d’amour, Pauline Viardot. He had been hopelessly in love with her since 1843, but she was the wife of his good friend Louis Viardot (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R). After staying at the Viardots’ as a ‘family friend’ for a really long time, he decides in 1847 that it’s more appropriate to rent his own apartment, close to the Tuileries Garden.

Depressed

Around 1857, the year that Tolstoy came to visit, Turgenev lives on the Rue the Rivoli 208 or 210 (most sources say 210) with his daughter Paulinette. At that time his relationship with Pauline is not so good, and that depresses him.

50 Rue de Douai

In 1871, however, when he is 53 years old, he moves in with the Viardots at the 50 Rue de Douai. There he occupies four rooms on the third flour. By then he has become some sort of honorary consul of Russia in Paris. Ilya Repin comes to paint his portrait, and he takes part in weekly get togethers with Maupassant, Zola, Flaubert and Georges Sand (to name but a few) in former restaurant Magny on the Rue Mazet.

After his death in 1883 in the Viardots’ country house, his body is transported to Russia to be buried there. But before the coffin gets on the train, it is sent to the Russian Cathedral in the Rue Daru to get censed, even though Ivan was not religious.

Rue de Rivoli

With Tolstoy, of course, it’s a different story. Not love, but adventure calls him to Paris. He arrives at the Gare du Nord on February 9th 1857. Turgenev and the writer Nekrasov, who he knows well, receive him. The first night he sleeps in the Hôtel Meurice in the Rue de Rivoli, but the next day he rents a furnished apartment in the same street on number 206.

Madness

On the evening of his arrival Tolstoy is taken to a costumed ball in the Opéra by Turgenev. Before he goes to bed that night Tolstoy writes only one word in his diary, that typifies his stay in Paris: “Madness.”.

Turgenev, who knows the city really well, shows him numerous places of interest. But also when Tolstoy is alone he keeps a busy schedule. He goes to lectures at the Sorbonne, to concerts, to evenings with fellow countrymen. Obviously he thinks Napoleon’s grave is a disgusting display of misplaced worship. Through Turgenev he could have met a number of acclaimed French writers, but typically he doesn’t think that’s necessary.

The Guillotine

Tolstoy is enjoying himself tremendously until he decides one unfortunate day to attend an execution by guillotine. But seeing the infamous machine in action with his own eyes terrifies him, it disgusts him, he is disgusted with himself for going, he is disgusted with the French for inventing it and can’t sleep for nights. He leaves Paris soon after.

Love-hate

In Paris too the relationship between the two writers is not always good (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1Y). Their diaries and letters clearly show that:

Turgenev, February 16 – His creaking and groaning have a very bad effect on a man like me, whose nerves are already overstrained.

Tolstoy, February 21 – Spent another pleasant evening with Turgenev and a bottle of wine by the fireside.

Tolstoy, March 4 – Dropped in on Turgenev. He is a cold and useless man, but intelligent and his art is inoffensive.

Turgenev, March 8 – I cannot establish any lasting friendship with Tolstoy, our views are too different.

 

View on the Tuileries from the Rue de Rivoli
This is the building in which Tolstoy rented an apartment
He only stayed six weeks, but he is remembered in Paris
The door at 206-208 is beautiful, and the location in great, but inside it was not as comfortable as Tolstoy was accustomed to..

The Viardots’ house on the Rue de Douai

Turgenev’s rooms were on the third flour

Turgenev must have crossed this doorstep many times

Ici vécut de 1871 à 1883 l’écrivain Russe Ivan Tourguéniev après de ses amis Louis Viardot, historien d’art et hispaniste, et Pauline Viardot-Garcia, cantatrice et compositeur, soeur de la Malibran

On the ground flour there is now an authentic and delicious bakery

The view from the bakery

The Russian Cathedral where Turgenev’s coffin was censed. Incidentally there was also a funeral service being held when I took these photos.

When on February 19th 1871 Russia officially abolished serfdom, Turgenev was so happy (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-28) that he went to Russian church to celebrate!

-fin-

—Tous les photos prises par moi-même—

Les livres:

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

Tolstoy and Turgenev, his Life and Times by Henri Troyat

The Death of Lev Nikolayevich

The clock at the train station of the small Russian town Lev Tolstoy has stopped at five past six ever since the famous writer died there 105 years ago. When on the 31st of October 1910 an ill Tolstoy was put to bed at the station master’s house, the quiet town of Astapovo, as it was known then, suddenly became the stage of an epic media circus.

Lev Tolstoy leaves Yasnaya Polyana!

In the early morning of the 28th of October 1910 Tolstoy had left his beloved Yasnaya Polyana in secret. The situation at his home had become unbearable. His wife Sophia argued non stop with him about his friendship with Chertkov, a devoted Tolstoy follower, who according to Sophia had too much influence. Also Tolstoy wanted to finally act according to his principles, live a simple life, become a wanderer and give up his worldly possessions.

Together with his physician Makovitsky he traveled to the station where he bought two tickets with different destinations, to make it more difficult for Sophia to track him down. Once on board the train he is immediately recognised and people from the whole train flock to his compartment to see and hear the famous writer. Within hours a newspaper headline reads “Lev Tolstoy leaves Yasnaya Polyana”. When Sophia, who is rather paranoid and jealous, finds out that her husband has left her, she runs to the garden pond and tries to drown herself (as she well knows it’s not very deep).

How Tolstoy ended up in Astapovo

On the first day of his travels Tolstoy visits the famous Optina Monastery, where he talks with the elders and spends the night. The second day he visits his sister in the Shamardino monastery. He then continues his travels and buys a third class ticket in the direction of the Caucasus.

On the 31st however, he develops pneumonia and in the evening he has deteriorated so much that Makovitsky decides to take him of the train at the next station. And that happens to be Astapovo. The station master Ivan Ozolin recognises the writer and offers him a room in his house.

Tolstoy’s illness attracts the world press

It’s not long before the whole world knows that Tolstoy is seriously ill. Press from all over the world gathers in Astapovo. Every detail, even the tea he drinks, is news. Around 1000 telegrams are dispatched from Astapovo in the week that follows. Mister Pathė has sent a camera crew and has given them orders to film everything. When Sophia arrives on the the scene, her husband does not wish to see her. That painful marriage drama too is cause for the wildest speculations in the papers.

The peace and quiet Tolstoy longed for is nowhere near. Luckily he doesn’t notice the extent of the sensation he has caused, but he does sense that his wife wants to see him and that upsets him. Sophia and the children on her side are staying in the first class train wagon that they arrived in, and Chertkov, the doctor and the children on their father’s side are staying in the station master’s house (who by now has given up his whole house and is staying elsewhere with his family).

 

Well, this is the end. That is all…

 

Tolstoy’s health deteriorates rapidly and he loses consciousness more frequently. The last words he speaks to his daughter Sasha are “Well, this is the end. That is all”. When Sophia is finally admitted to her husband he is already unconscious. In the presence of his wife and children Tolstoy dies at five past six in the morning on November the 7th 1910.

Those who are present in Astapovo pay their last respects. On November the 9th Tolstoy shall be buried, without the church, as he has been excommunicated, at Yasnaya Polyana. There is an enormous interest for his funeral, but the government has decided not to run any extra trains to accommodate all who want to go. Once again the Russian authorities find it difficult to deal with the death of a controversial writer.

A special train brings the coffin to Zasyeka station, where thousands are waiting in the morning frost and fog. From there it is a three hour walk to Yasnaya Polyana. The coffin is carried first by Tolstoy’s sons and later by the peasants of Yasnaya Polyana. Sophia walks behind the coffin with her children as the crowd quietly sings Eternal Memory, the song that is always sung at orthodox funerals. At home Tolsoy lies on a table in the hall for another three hours and during that time approximately 5000 people walk past him, many of them crying. Finally he is buried on his estate, in a favourite childhood spot.

And so the first non-religious funeral in Russia is a fact.

 

 

Books read:

Tolstoy, a Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson

 

Thanks to the Pathé film crew we can watch footage from Tolstoy’s funeral:

 

Is Hadji Murat the improved version of War and Peace?

Earlier I wrote that Hadji Murat can be seen as a mini version of War and Peace. But did Tolstoy deliberately rewrite War and Peace?

Tolstoy’s final work of fiction

Tolstoy wrote Hadji Murat over the course of eight years at the end of his life, from 1896 until 1904. It is the last piece of fiction that he wrote and his wife Sophia cherished it particularly. Because at that time he also wrote What Is Art? (1897), in which he, among other things, condemns fiction, he felt obliged to write Hadji Murat on the side.

Similarities and oppositions

In both works we find a large number of characters, 580 in War and Peace and 151 in Hadji Murat. Tolstoy uses these characters, from a simple soldier up to the tsar, to illustrate the war from a wide variety of perspectives. Real and fictitious characters and facts are intermingled.

In both works domestic scenes are contrasted with military scenes; in War and Peace the family life plays a bigger part, in Hadji Murat it’s the other way around. The domestic life is often luxurious, whereas at the front things are kept simple.

War can be beautiful too

Tolstoy philosophises in both works about the reasons for warfare. The war is typically started by an ambitious ruler, spirals out of control and before you know it millions of people have lost their lives. But it’s not all evil; there are many cheerful military scenes, particularly in Hadji Murat, even though Tolstoy was a self-proclaimed pacifist around 1900. Perhaps out of nostalgia, having fought in the Caucasian war himself.

In the beginning of Hadji Murat a small scale gun fight takes place between Russian and Chechen soldiers, in which one soldier is killed. This fight is described as “… the incessant, merry, stirring rattle of our rifles began, accompanied by pretty dissolving cloudlets of smoke.”. In War and Peace there are similar battle scenes; on the morning of the Battle of Borodino, for instance, Pierre is mesmerised by the battlefield scene in front of him: “… these puffs of smoke and (strange to say) the sound of the firing produced the chief beauty of the spectacle.”.

The eyes are the mirror of the soul

One of the most beautiful scenes in War and Peace is the reunion of Nicholas, returning home on leave, and his youth love Sonya. Because this reunion takes place in the drawing room in front of the whole family, Nicholas keeps it formal. He kisses Sonya’s hands and addresses her with you in stead of thou, but “глаза их, встретившись, сказали друг другу “ты” и нежно поцеловались”, their eyes met and said thou and exchanged tender kisses.

Tolstoy uses the exact same construction in Hadji Murat: a formal meeting takes place between the hero of the story and the Commander-in-Chief Vorontsov. Hadji Murat is formally surrendering himself to the Russians. “Глаза этих двух людей, встретившись, говорили друг другу многое, невыразимое словами, и уж совсем не то, что говорил переводчик.”,the eyes of the two men met, and expressed to each other much that could not have been put into words and that was not at all what the interpreter said.

Thanks to those two sentences the reader now knows much, much more about the characters. Although Nicholas ends up being happily married to Mary, the reader cannot help but think that he would have been happier with Sonya. In the case of Hadji Murat we now know, already in the beginning of the story, that Hadji Murat’s surrender was not sincere, but motivated by the hope that with the help of the Russians he could free his family and that Vorontsov knew this too. And Vorontsov knowingly agreed, probably because it was a matter of prestige for the Russians to have the great naïb on their side. And so Tolstoy cleverly lets the reader draw their own conclusions and actively involves them into the story.

Conclusion

All these similarities can lead only to one conclusion: Tolstoy deliberately rewrote War and Peace, probably to convey his current outspoken ideas about pacifism, and perhaps to write one more final work of fiction before he died, in order to close off his literary career once and for all.

Louis Lejeune – Battle of Moscow (Wikipedia)

 

Reading list: War and Peace and Hadji Murat

For a review on Hadji Murat  https://booksyo.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/hadji-murat-by-leo-tolstoy/


 

The Artist Fyodor Tolstoy

Actually I intended not to write about the illustrious Tolstoy clan for a while, but a recent visit to the Hermitage in Amsterdam changed my mind. On the Alexander, Napoleon & Joséphine exhibition there I discovered to my delight seven beautiful medallions by Fyodor Tolstoy.

Count Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy

Count Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy was a first cousin of Fyodor, the 'American' Tolstoy and great uncle of our well known Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. His great-great-grandfather was Peter Tolstoy, the trustee of Peter the Great. He was born in 1753 and had, like apparently most Tolstoys, an idyllic childhood, even though his family was not wealthy. His artistic talents were discovered early, but according to tradition he was given a military upbringing.

Artistic

In 1802 he went to study at the the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg and there he was much happier than at the Naval Academy. It may not have been entirely appropriate for a Count Tolstoy, but his parents let him go. Fyodor dedicated the rest of his life to art. As a result he spent his life in relative poverty, even though he was quite successful as an artist.

Fyodor was an extremely talented painter, illustrator (of among others Dushenka by Bogdanovich), sculptor, and, if unemployed for a few moments, he cut out clever silhouettes. Later he also designed costumes and background scenery for the ballet.

Magnus Opus

His Magnus Opus is a series of 24 medallions depicting the war against Napoleon. After extensive research he decided to make them in the neoclassical style. In 1814, just after the Russians took Paris, he made the first one. It shows a bust of Alexander I. Making the medallions was an extremely laborious precision job, that required great craftsmanship. With this first one he managed to secure a grant that would allow him to finish the other 23. That was necessary because he made them to express his patriotic feelings and not on an assignment. In 1836 he made the last one.

Tolstoy gained international fame with these medallions. In Vienna they wrote that nothing finer had been made in the past centuries and Goethe was so impressed that he wanted to meet him. The British government asked if he could also make a series about British victories. An offer he declined on patriotic grounds.

Hermitage Amsterdam

And now seven of the twenty four medals are on display in the Hermitage in Amsterdam, where they can be admired until the 8th of November 2015.

http://www.hermitage.nl/en/tentoonstellingen/alexander_napoleon_josephine/index.htm

 

 

The Tolstoys – Nikolai Tolstoy