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 Pushkin

Pushkin (1799-1837) is the Mozart of the literary world. He is light footed, crystal clear and highly musical. Everything is just as it should be. Even his sporadic imperfections are charming. Pushkin is from the Romantic era, like Byron, Scott and the Russian Lermontov.

Exotic relations

On his father’s side of the family he stems from ancient Russian nobility. His mother’s side of the family is exotic: his great grandfather, an Ethiopian, was given to Peter the Great as a present in 1704. Peter took a liking to the little Abraham, and gave him the patronymic Petrovich, after himself, and a proper military education. Abraham eventually became a general and took on Hannibal as a last name, a definite sign that he was no slave. The Empress Elizabeth gave him a country estate to thank him for his services, Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin would get banned to it at some point in his career. Abraham married a Swedish woman, and that makes Pushkin just as much Swedish as Ethiopian.

Father of Russian literature

Pushkin is generally considered to be the father of Russian literature. He adjusted the archaic Russian language to his own needs and created a modern language, suitable for both modern poetry and prose. With this modernised language he expressed himself in a wide variety of literary genres: stories, drama, narrative poems, poetry, novellas, fairy tales and a novel in verse. The novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is typical for Pushkin’s innovative style.

Style and works

His stories and novellas are sheer perfection, everything is right: the subject choice, they are light, there is humour and there is mystery. Many Russian writers took them as a starting point for their own writings. As I have written before, that is considered a big compliment in Russian literature. As a result there are numerous stories that are called The Snowstorm, but Pushkin wrote the original. The novellas Queen of Spades and The Captains Daughter are true masterpieces.

His poetry is legendary. He started to write poetry at school, with a preference for patriotic, satirical or amorous subjects. These subjects remained with him throughout his career. Most Russians know at least one of his poems by heart. Pushkin’s own favourite work was Eugene Onegin. A unique work with an innovative rhyme scheme that became known as the Onegin Stanza. It’s a cheery tale, thanks to this rhyme scheme, in spite of the romantic subject. Tatyana is a typical romantic heroine, a pale and dreamy girl, who spends her nights staring out the window at the moon. Onegin is one of those superfluous men, a poet who is bored with life. Pushkin infused the story with a rich humour, folklore and fantasy.

Influences

His work did not only influence other writers, but also numerous composers. Tchaikovsky turned Eugene Onegin into an opera that is, at least in the western world, probably better known than the book. Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov were also inspired by the works of Pushkin.

So who was Pushkin influenced by? His dear old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, apparently. She narrated all the fairy tales and legends she knew to him, and even when he was already grown up, he loved to listen to her (she stayed at Mikhailovskoe until she died). His maternal grandmother, who looked after little Alexander and his sister more than their mother, told him all about the origins of his family and sparked his interest in history.

Translating Pushkin

Because his works are so playful and musical, he is notoriously difficult to translate*. Nabokov wrote two fat volumes about the translation of Eugene Onegin, and still his translation doesn’t work for me. The two volumes themselves are super informative, though.

Debt and exile

Like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Pushkin had to write to pay his debts. The lifestyle that was required of him was more expensive than he could afford. His often razor sharp pen earned him a couple of banishments.

In short

It’s not difficult to recognise Pushkin, like Mozart he has a unique style. Seemingly effortless, fluent and happy. He likes to converse with his reader too. Because he was not a Realist like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there are no moral issues that he wants to force upon his reader. Almost two centuries later his work does not appear outdated in the least. You can pick up any of his works at any time of the day and enjoy it like listening to Mozart, or a fantastic wine. So lean back in a comfortable chair and enjoy, perhaps even all three simultaneously.

 

Booklist:

Pushkin by T.J. Binyon

Photos © by me, the illustrations are from a old book that I picked up at a book market.

*Before you buy, it’s probably wise to read the first page to see if the translation works for you. In English I really like Roger Clarke, he seems to hit the right balance and gets the right feeling across. His comments and notes are also very entertaining.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=0hOT2QtLhhk

*******

 

Pushkin’s Own Duel

Imagine that you’ve shot dead,
a young friend of your own,
because after a drink he offended you
with an impudent look or remark
or in some other trifling way –
or perhaps, his own honour slighted, in a blaze of anger
he challenged you to a duel.
Just imagine him lying on the ground before you
motionless, death spelt out on his brow,
his body slowly rigidifying:
desperately though you call him
he neither hears nor answers…
Tell me: what feeling now
will overwhelm your heart?

On January the 27th of 1837 somewhere in a field close to Saint Petersburg, two shots were fired. The first by Georges d’Anthès, the second by Alexander Pushkin. D’Anthès’s bullet hits Pushkin in the stomach and Pushkin’s bullet pierces d’Anthès’s arm and would have entered his chest, were it not for one of his uniform buttons. Two days later Russia’s ’all’ is dead. A tragic and senseless waste of a huge talent.

Duels were a recurrent theme with Pushkin, and he himself had taken part in more than one. The poet was quite a hotheaded guy. His wife Natasha was known as perhaps the most beautiful woman in Russia. They had four children and were fairly happily married. Pushkin was proud of his pretty wife and would have been disappointed indeed if other men hadn’t paid attention to her.

Georges d’Anthès

Georges d’Anthès was a young Frenchman* who served as an officer in the prestigious Imperial Guard. He lived with his rich adoptive father, the Baron van Heeckeren, Dutch ambassador in Saint Petersburg. Van Heeckeren was a homosexual and it seems more than likely that his relationship with d’Anthès was intimate. There were certainly rumours in that direction. But the biggest gossip in town was van Heeckeren himself, and he cunningly spread a rumour that d’Anthès was the illegitimate son of the Dutch king, William I, apparently preferring to slander his king than himself. D’Anthès didn’t seem to care much and happily spent his rich papa’s money, acting like a dandy and a womaniser.

In May 1834 Pushkin, together with his friend Danzas, met d’Anthès for the first time. The three of them had at that time no idea of the circumstances under which they would meet again in January 1837.

Rejected lover

D’Anthès fell in love with Natasha. He became obsessed with her, his avances quickly became more and more improper. The young and innocent Natasha didn’t know how to deal with him and d’Anthès convinced himself that she loved him too. In letters to van Heeckeren he even begs his adoptive father to try to convince Natasha, to lie to her, saying that d’Anthès is dying of his love for Natasha, begging her to leave or betray her husband**. D’Anthès even told Natasha that he would kill himself if she didn’t give in!***

The anonymous letters

Obviously Pushkin started to get more and more annoyed with d’Anthès and when in November 1836 anonymous letters, suggesting that d’Anthès and Natasha were having an affair, were going around in Saint Petersburg, he couldn’t take no more. The letters were addressed to several friends of Pushkin, but of course, he got to see them. It has never become clear who was behind them, Pushkin blamed van Heeckeren, but it was more likely the work of two well known pranksters from Saint Petersburg.

The challenge

The next morning Pushkin challenged d’Anthès to a duel. Because d’Anthès wasn’t home due to his officer’s duties, van Heeckeren accepted in his name and at the same time managed to arrange a fortnight’s delay. In those two weeks d’Anthès got engaged to Natasha’s sister Yekaterina. This was a big surprise for everyone and no doubt van Heeckeren had instructed d’Anthès to do so. Pushkin, however, thought it was a scheme of d’Anthès and van Heeckeren; by marrying the sister d’Anthès would have unlimited acces to Natasha. Pushkin was probably right. He refused to attend the wedding, but he saw himself forced to cancel the duel.

The duel

In spite of the marriage the rumours and avances continued and Pushkin challenged d’Anthès again for a duel only weeks after the marriage.

On Januari the 27th Pushkin leaves his house to go to the appointed place. Natasha knows nothing. On the threshold he turns around to go back inside and put on a warmer coat, the worst thing he could do; according to Russian superstition the threshold brings bad luck, and Pushkin was extremely superstitious. On his way he still has to find a second**** and finally finds one in Danzas, his old schoolfriend. The duel takes place and a couple of hours later Pushkin is carried over the threshold of his house again, seriously injured.

The death of the poet

He wants to be taken into his study. They lie him down on the sofa and send for a doctor. The first doctor they find is an obstetrician, who can’t do much, but later the tsar’s own doctor, Arendt comes to see him. He concludes that the injuries are fatal. Pushkin writes to the tsar and asks him for forgiveness, and for Danzas too. He also asks him to look after Natasha and the children. The tsar writes back, not to worry, he will look after Natasha and the children as if they were his own. Pushkin kisses the letter. He assures Natasha that she is not to blame in any way, tells her to remarry, but not with a scoundrel! He says farewell to his children and best friends.

For two days he lies on that sofa. It must have seemed an eternity. He suffers tremendously, he can’t bear to have others touch his wound and changes the dressing himself. At a quarter to three in the afternoon of January the 29th 1837 he complains that he is suffocating and dies.

After his death

Natasha and the children were taken care off. Nicholas kept his promise and paid the allowances and even paid off all of Puhkin’s debts. When the period of mourning was over, Natasha became maid-of-honour for the tsarina. She remarried and had four more children.

After an angry letter from Nicholas to William II, van Heeckeren was called back to the Netherlands. D’Anthès had to go to jail and was forced to leave Russia a few months later, his officer’s rank was taken away from him. He went to France where van Heeckeren and Yekaterina were waiting for him. Danzas got away with only a small sentence.

*Technically d’Anthès was of Dutch nationality after the adoption.

**On October the 17th d’Anthès writes a letter to van Heeckeren in which he begs him to speak to Natasha alone and to tell her that his son is dying of love for her and that he fears for his life.

***On November the 2nd d’Anthès tricks Natasha into a meeting alone with him and tries to convince her to betray her husband, threatening to kill himself if she doesn’t.

****Duelling was against the law. Participants and seconds risked even the death penalty. It was the seconds’ duty to not only make sure that everything went according to the rules, but most importantly to try to stop the duel from taking place at all. You could, for obvious reasons, refuse to be a second. Danzas, however, was asked by Pushkin at the very last moment (others had already refused) and as his old schoolfriend, he felt he couldn’t refuse. Because he did not have time to stop the duel, he got off lightly, he wasn’t to blame.

*****http://the-newspapers.com/2016/06/04/pushkins-blood-was-needed-to-confirm-the-authenticity-of-the-sofa

-Quote from Eugene Onegin

-Photos from Wikipedia (the fatal duel, Natasha, d’Anthès and the waistcoat Pushkin was wearing at the time of the duel) and from me

-Literature consulted:

Pushkin, A Biography van T.J. Binyon

and

A Passion for Pushkin

One of the nicest things about Pushkin is his simple writing style. When I first read his work at university, I immediately noticed that his Russian was very easy to understand. Even for a relative beginner like me. Now that is precisely his legacy: Pushkin was the first Russian writer to use clear, modern Russian for typically Russian subjects.

Exile

In 1820 Pushkin was sent into exile to the south because of his political opinions. First to the Caucasus and the Crimea, later to his mother’s estate. He was only 21 years old. There our young hero didn’t have as many (female) distractions as he would have had in his hometown St Petersburg. During these five years living in exile, he was able to fully concentrate on developing his literary talents. He learned English and Italian, and read many books, he particularly liked Byron. His environment proved inspiring too.

Eugene Onegin

Pushkin started writing on his most famous work, Eugene Onegin in exile. This novel in verse is generally considered to be the turning point in Russian literature. It is the most printed book in Russian history. Every self respecting Russian knows it. Eugene is actually an anti-hero, he is rich, bored, and a poet, like Pushkin. The sweet and romantic Tatiana falls head over heels in love with him. But does he love her back? Eugene Onegin is an irresistible mixture of western romanticism and Russian folklore. Like all Pushkin’s work (and come to think of it, many other Russian books), you have to read it primarily with your heart.

Pushkin’s influence

Later Russian literature is full of references to Eugene Onegin. All the Tatianas and poets you’ll meet there, all the duels that take place, they all refer to and pay tribute to Pushkin’s masterpiece. In Russian literature these kind of references are always considered as a form of flattery and never seen as plagiarism.

Pushkin developed the standard style of writing in modern Russian. A super simple but subtle way of telling stories, and that specific sense of humour and satire that became so synonymous with the golden age of Russian literature. Sending Pushkin into exile certainly turned out to be invaluable for modern Russian literature!

Before Pushkin hardly anything of any literary value had been written. After Pushkin came the other giants of literature: Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Goncharov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov.

 

 

Books to enjoy:

Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse (I read Nabokov’s translation)

Boris Godunov, a historic drama

The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, short stories (I see here a reference from J K Rowling, with The Tales of Beedle the Bard)

And plenty of other stories, poems and fairy tales.