Page to Opera Stage: The Changes Tchaikovsky Made in Adapting Pushkin’s ‘Unadaptable’ ‘Eugene Onegin’

By Carmen Paddock

“Page to Opera Stage” looks at stories – real-life or fiction, old and new – that have inspired operas, and the ways these narratives have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. This week’s installment – the first one – looks at Alexander Pushkin’s and Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”

At the age of 26, the poet, novelist, and “father of Russian literature” Alexander Pushkin published the first chapter of what would become his magnum opus. ‘Eugene Onegin’ (or the un-anglicized, but less common Yevgeny Onegin), a novel written in “Pushkin sonnets,” would be published in eight chapters between 1825 and 1832. It became a massive literary success in Russia, though its perceived untranslatability has made it less well-known in other countries than the prose works of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.

By 1837, Pushkin would be dead, having died in a duel. In 1879, the Russian romantic composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky would adapt this work into his most famous opera. It was not an immediate success – the Moscow audience knew large chunks of the book by heart, making his libretto’s adaptation seem lesser in comparison – but has earned a place in the canon for its lush score and perceptive psychological portraits.

The plot of “Eugene Onegin” is relatively straightforward. Onegin, a bored Saint Petersburg rake, has recently inherited an estate from his uncle. When moving to the country he befriends neighboring poet Vladimir Lensky and the family of Lensky’s betrothed Olga. Tatyana, Olga’s older sister, falls wildly in love with Onegin and writes him a love letter, which he tactfully but coldly rejects. A few months later at Tatyana’s name day celebration, Onegin resents Lensky for bringing him and flirts with Olga as retaliation. Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, during which the poet is killed. The story then skips forward several years, when Onegin returns from travels abroad and finds Tatyana married in Moscow society. Realizing his love, he tries to declare it – but Tatyana, despite her own undimmed feelings, must reject him. The novel ends and the curtain falls.

Despite the small cast and relatively simple action, the novel has not lent itself especially well to adaptation due to its complex poetic compositional structure and an omniscient narrator. Its eight chapters are linear (except for the flashbacks in the first chapter), but they vary in the time covered and any gaps in time between them. When adapting ‘Eugene Onegin’ for the stage, Tchaikovsky cut the action down to three acts and seven scenes, all linear, and opens not with Onegin’s dying uncle (and the hero’s impatience at the fact) but with Tatyana’s gentle strings theme and loving family dynamic. He crafted the libretto himself from Pushkin’s poetry, but at several points made grammatical and dramatic choices to put words from third to first person.

Three additional areas highlight the deliberateness of Tchaikovsky’s interpretive choices, removing some of the book’s sardonic tone in favor of an unabashedly romantic, deeply human work.

You vs. You

The Russian language has two versions of “you”: “Вы,” a formal or plural form, and “Ты,” an informal, personal, always-singular form. As most of the novel is narrated in the third person, Tchaikovsky had to choose how his characters would address each other. The only shift taken directly from the novel is in Tatyana’s letter when she starts and ends with the formal вы but switches to ты as she is carried away in her emotions – an evocative picture of young love.

Tchaikovsky takes this canonical switch and adapts it for Lensky’s Act one arioso as well – his declarations of “Я люблю вас” (“I love you” –  formal) switch to “Я люблю тебя” (“I love you” – informal) by the end. Lensky, Onegin, and Olga switch between вы and ты during the name day quarrel – Lensky starting his challenges to the others in the formal but reverting to informal out of habit, Onegin only switching to formal when the challenge is finalized, and Olga staying in informal as she cannot see a reason to change. And in the final scene, Onegin switches from formal to informal after Tatyana admits that she still loves him – yet she maintains the formal distance until the final, informal verb tense of “Прощай навек” “Farewell forever”.

These are minute changes and leave much up to the interpretation of the singers, but they give clues to how relationships shift – crucial in a drama as intimate as this one.

The Duel

A key change between Pushkin’s and Tchaikovsky’s stories is Tatyana’s name-day party leading into Onegin and Lensky’s duel. In Pushkin, Lensky leaves the party in a quiet rage when Onegin flirts with Olga, sending his challenge via Zaretsky the next morning, and they duel the day after that. Between the challenge and the duel, Lensky goes to visit the Larin family, where Olga greets him as if nothing was amiss. The scene is quietly devastating, throwing the senselessness of the young men’s decision into sharp relief. But the duel must go forward, and tragedy ensues:

“It’s too much. Lensky cannot bear it.

The tricks of women! Hear him curse!
He walks out, calling for his horse,

And rides off. Pistols now will square it;

Two bullets and a single shot

Will suddenly decide his lot”

Tchaikovsky’s version is more of an explosion into violence than a secretive affair that ends in death. Lensky privately confronts Olga for choosing Onegin and Onegin for his careless behavior, before challenging Onegin to a duel in front of the guests at the name day celebration. It ends in a shattering ensemble number and the duel takes place the very next morning. Lensky’s visit is replaced with his famous aria mourning his lost youth and love, but on this course death is unavoidable.

Both versions play fast and loose with dueling etiquette of the day – something Pushkin would have been very familiar with – and achieve different ends in doing so. In both versions, Zaretsky neglects to declare Lensky the victor when Onegin is late and allows Onegin to appoint his valet as his second – a slight in the genteel dueling culture. Zaretsky’s omission of asking Onegin for an apology is even more clear in the book, which could have led to reconciliation rather than bloodshed. The meaning of this faux pas is up for debate: is it a commentary on senseless societal pressures around honor, or is Onegin’s status as an older, possibly wealthier party seen as somehow untouchable?

Tchaikovsky’s excellent stagecraft suspends disbelief. The opera entirely disregards the secrecy that dueling would have required with the huge finale to Act two Scene one. But a huge confrontation and emotional number that lets each of the main characters share their private and public griefs makes for far better drama than a letter delivered the morning after.

How It Ends

Both novel and opera end suddenly; Onegin is alone, abandoned by the now-married Tatyana, and seemingly at a dead-end in life. However, the preceding stanzas and scene reveal a vastly different type of confrontation and heartbreak. Pushkin’s Tatyana speaks uninterrupted, echoing Onegin’s own rejection of her love letter years ago. She leaves suddenly and definitively, and Onegin’s own feelings are second to Pushkin’s narrator’s musings on the nature of love and life – and a brief, fond farewell to his antihero that fits the story’s effervescent tone.

“Blest he who leaves a little early

Life’s banquet without eating up

Or seeing the bottom of his cup,

Who drops his novel prematurely,

Bidding it suddenly adieu

As I Yevgeny Onegin do.” 

By contrast, Tchaikovsky’s final scene is a lengthy duet, with both characters pleading their cases. Tatyana’s initial reasoning and questioning of Onegin’s motives are interrupted by his ardent declaration of love and assertions that it is not too late. With this, Tatyana’s later admissions that she still loves him – taken directly from Pushkin – becomes a conversation of love versus duty and a stunning, heart-breaking duet for its two lead performers.

As in the duel adaptation, convention and realism take second place to the possibilities of staged drama, proving Tchaikovsky’s skill in adapting an “unadaptable” text.

All quotations are from the Anthony Briggs translation of “Yevgeny Onegin,” published by Pushkin Press


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