Completed in 1832, Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” is Russia’s most beloved literary work, and it’s spawned an opera by Tchaikovsky, ballets by John Cranko and Boris Eifman, and a number of films. Now, it’s a play adapted and directed by Rimas Tuminas for the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia. Presented at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Friday by ArtsEmerson, this “Onegin,” in Russian with English supertitles (drawn mostly from Charles Johnston’s rhyming translation), isn’t an adaptation so much as a meditation, but at a fascinating 3½ hours, it does restore much of what previous versions have left out.
Pushkin didn’t exactly finish his “novel in verse”; he simply bid his characters farewell. Vakhtangov’s “Onegin” opened in a provincial ballet studio, with a mirrored back wall, where a mature Onegin recalled how, some 30 years earlier, on a visit to the country, he rejected Tatyana’s passionate declaration, flirted idly with her sister Olga, was called out by Lensky (his best friend, and Olga’s fiance), and killed Lensky in a duel. This Onegin was joined by the mature Lensky — perplexing, but Pushkin does speculate on how Lensky’s life might have turned out had he not died young — and by a “retired hussar,” and they narrated the story.
What followed often looked like the Federico Fellini version of “Onegin.” The young Onegin and Lensky appeared side by side with the mature versions. Ballet class went on intermittently, the ballet mistress giving instruction in untranslated French. The Barcarolle from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” played during the duel, which was more of an execution, Onegin jabbing his pistol into Lensky’s ribs. As Tatyana and other village girls were being carted to the marriage fair in Moscow, in the midst of a blizzard, a rabbit turned up and, in a sequence right out of Bugs Bunny, planted a smacker on the soldier who was trying to shoot it.
I wish there had been more room for Pushkin’s voice. Representing himself as a friend of Onegin, the author, apart from telling the story, surveys St. Petersburg’s social scene, compares himself to Homer (at least when it comes to describing feasts), recalls a particularly beautiful pair of feet, likens his hero to Byron’s Childe Harold, muses on Russia’s horrendous infrastructure, and laments approaching old age as he contemplates turning . . . 30! Some of this did make it into the production, notably the prediction that in 500 years or so, “paved roads will traverse Russia’s length / bringing her unity and strength.”
Vakhtangov’s “Onegin” was also short on Onegin. The first of Pushkin’s eight chapters, in which our hero is introduced, was missing altogether. The focus was instead on Tatyana, and on women as victims. Pushkin’s Olga marries a lancer mere months after Lensky’s death; Tuminas’s Olga seemed to be getting married off against her will. Suspended in swings, the Moscow brides looked as comfortable as Bluebeard’s wives, their heads lolling from side to side. Tatyana herself wound up with a large, heavy prince at least 20 years her senior. Pushkin, if he moralizes at all, does so with a lighter touch.
But on Friday night (a different cast performed Saturday afternoon), there was no resisting Eugeniya Kregzhde’s irrepressible Tatyana, whether she was kicking her insomnia-inducing pillow into submission, reciting Tatyana’s immortal letter in her own idiosyncratic rhythm, jumping up and down as if she were at a Justin Bieber concert, or tenderly sharing her ice with the prince (a stately, handsome Yuriy Shlykov). The entire cast was stellar, from Alexei Guskov’s dissipated, slump-shouldered mature Onegin to Viktor Dobronravov’s self-absorbed young Onegin to Mariya Volkova’s ditsy, accordion-playing Olga. Irina Kupchenko gave vivid life to Tatyana’s dream about the bear, and the creature reappeared at Tatyana’s name-day party, as a teddy bear gift from Lensky, and then at the end as a huge stuffed animal on rollers that Tatyana danced with. Not the conclusion Pushkin chose, but very Pushkin all the same.