By James Kincaid
Tchaikovsky tells us he was, at first, alarmed at the idea of turning Pushkin’s beloved masterpiece Eugene Onegin into an opera. Luckily for us, he soon saw in that poetic narrative a chance to escape “Egyptian princesses, pharaohs, poisonings and stilted effects of all kinds.” Here, in a simple story of domestic screw-ups, the great composer also spotted a chance to “convey through music everyday simple, universally human emotions, far removed from everything tragic or theatrical.”
Fully aware of the risks he was taking in abandoning tried and true dramatic formulae, Tchaikovsky insisted what he had done was not an opera at all, simply “lyric scenes.” “The opera,” he said, “will, of course, be without any strong dramatic action; but on the other hand it will have an interesting everyday aspect to it.” Such low-mimetic realism, he also figured, would guarantee a flop: “it is insufficiently lively and interesting to be to the public’s liking.” So convinced was he that he had a loser on his hands, he trusted this “opera without any prospects” to the students at the Moscow Conservatory for its debut in 1879.
Now this not-quite-an-opera is part of the standard repertoire and much loved. Nor did it take long to establish itself: 1881 at the Bolshoi, Prague in 1888, and, settling matters for all time, a triumphant 1892 performance in Berlin, conducted by Gustav Mahler. The always modest Tchaikovsky attributed the success altogether to Mahler, clinging to the notion that his work was nothing more than a small thing suited to production in homes or small concert halls.
Not that everyone was thrilled at the time. Some disliked any meddling with this iconic Russian work. Some, more pointedly, disliked the particular meddling Tchaikovsky had done: Turgenev wrote to Tolstoy, praising the music (as all have since) but disdaining the story: “What a libretto!”
What a libretto, indeed! The form of the narrative circles round a central irony of missed opportunities caused by characters whose motives, if one can call them that, are derived from trashy novels or passing winds. Upright people still regard Eugene Onegin as an opera teaching us the importance of Duty, which it may well. Tatiana can easily be seen as the central character and her actions as exemplary of mature and responsible being in the world. Having thrown herself into a tempestuous but ridiculously artificial passion for Onegin in her youth, she later sees that what counts is not passion — there is no sign that she connects to old, grizzled Prince Gremin in that way — but moral rectitude, being true to one’s pledges. There is a little of this even in Pushkin’s tricky and poised poem. “Complete moral independence is taking control over all lusts,” he said.
Doubtless true but, speaking only for myself, I find opera most pleasing when it is willing to invade the lust area a little and ease up on the iron moralisms. Duty makes me think of Mother at her worst, of George S. Patton (“duty is the essence of manhood”) and Robert E. Lee (“duty is the most sublime word in our language”), and calls up a longing for Oscar Wilde (“our duty… is to revive the old art of lying”), Shaw (“when a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty”) and Albert Camus (“our only duty is to love”).
Speaking of Camus, there is the chance we may take this opera not as a Victorian paean to dull responsibility but as a relentless portrayal of an absurd man. After all, Eugene Onegin, though central to the action, seems hardly ever present to us and, even less, to himself. Tatiana steals the first act from him, Lensky the second, and Gremin the third. Onegin postures, causes lots of damage, but never makes contact with a real motive or cause. More than Prufrock, he is the Hollow Man. He rejects love, kills his friend, does a poor imitation of Byron, and then is abandoned, as lost as ever. And why? He has done none of this for any reason, his murder of his friend making Meursault’s shooting of the Arab in Camus’ The Stranger seem deeply motivated. Worse, Onegin is not even the victim of any external forces. We’ve known Oedipus, and Gene here is no Oedipus, not even a Willy Loman. Just what we tough post-modernists recognize and thrill to: he’s so like us.
James Kincaid is Aerol Arnold Professor in the Department of English at the University of Southern California.