NEW YORK — In Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century novel-in-verse, “Eugene Onegin,” whose story inspired the famed 1879 Tchaikovsky opera and the John Cranko ballet, the title character, a jaded aristocrat, has not only killed his best friend in a duel but also rejected the girl who declared her deep and unconditional love for him.
“Bliss was so near, so altogether unattainable,” laments Tatyana, the cast-off object of Onegin’s recalcitrant affection. The novel concludes in a melancholic cri de coeur of remorse and longing for love he left unrequited.
But is Onegin truly remorseful, and has he changed? Those are some of the questions at the heart of this dramatic theatrical adaptation of “Eugene Onegin,” created by the prize-winning Russian director Rimas Tuminas and performed by the celebrated Vakhtangov State Academic Theater of Moscow. The play, a presentation by the Cherry Orchard Festival and ArtsEmerson, comes to the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre for performances Friday and Saturday.
“Rimas said to me, ‘You should imagine that Onegin doesn’t change. That’s very important. It doesn’t matter that he became older. He’s absolutely the same person he was all those years ago,’ ” says Alexei Guskov, one of two actors rotating in the role of the older Onegin.
In the adaptation, Onegin is telling the story of his lost love, Tatyana, 30 years later in a ballet studio in the Russian provinces. So the action in the story functions, in part, as Onegin’s memories. Hence, we get doppelgängers (one older, one younger) of Onegin and Onegin’s close friend Lensky, a curly-haired, romantic poet. A retired hussar (or cavalryman) serves as the main narrator alongside the mature Onegin.
Dressed as a man-in-black, the middle-aged version of Onegin, with mournful eyes, seems tormented by the memories and regrets of squandered youth. That contrasts with the spoiled, self-absorbed younger Onegin, a vampiric dandy who glides about the stage with careless indifference in a perpetual state of ennui.
“It’s a very powerful image — your older self thinking about and looking back on your younger self. But did you really change? Would you do it all the same way again? Probably,” says Guskov, speaking through a translator. “As much as he wants to be gentle and kind and thoughtful, Onegin doesn’t really feel remorse.”
Guskov is seated alongside set designer Adomas Yatsovskis and actress Ludmila Maksakova in a Midtown cafe the day after a performance at New York City Center as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival. The festival producers, Maria Shclover and Irina Shabshis, are on hand to translate. The acclaimed production, which features a 45-member cast, premiered in Moscow last year and captured Russia’s prestigious Crystal Turandot theater award. Writing in the Moscow Times, John Freedman declared it “a remake of a classic work of literature that has all the hallmarks of a new masterpiece.”
Tuminas’s perspective that Onegin lacks true remorse goes to the heart of his stage adaptation, which amplifies the plight of the women in the play. Indeed, there are powerfully poetic images that communicate the status of women as second-class citizens. A lantern-crowned stagecoach, evoking a giant Transylvanian coffin, trundles through the Russian countryside in a swirling snowstorm. Packed with a gaggle of young women, including Tatyana, it’s headed to St. Petersburg so they can find husbands to marry.
“Every woman can relate to Tatyana,” Guskov says. “Rimas thought about calling the play ‘Tatyana’ and making it the woman’s story, not the man’s story of ‘Eugene Onegin.’ It’s basically about Tatyana and Olga and other Russian women, about their feelings, and less about Onegin.”
In fact, Shclover points out, the younger version of Onegin is seen on stage for only 35 to 40 minutes of a 3½-hour production, which is spoken in Russian with English surtitles. This is a world populated by women: ebullient, life-loving Olga, who plays the accordion, and her reserved, smart, articulate sister, Tatyana, who falls passionately in love with Onegin and writes him a soul-baring letter trying to win his affection. Meanwhile, most of the men are callow, callous, pompous, narcissistic, or all of the above.
In a separate interview, the show’s choreographer, Angelica Kholina, says that every artist, when he creates work, reveals “a little bit about himself and his life.”
“In this case, Tuminas shows a certain irony he feels about himself and his own relationship toward women,” she says. “All his plays are about longing for love; and deep down in his soul, he is also longing for love. But through the beauty he puts on stage, he shows the lack of beauty sometimes in real life.”
Indeed, Kholina says Pushkin’s novel is a reflection of a patriarchal 19th-century Russian society, written in a time when women were under the thumb of men. Onegin is a victim of his own pride and selfishness, but also of the social conventions of the time. The trick of Tuminas’s adaptation is that it also becomes a critique of the misogyny that still plagues contemporary society and its institutions.
“What’s powerful is the role of this strong woman, Tatyana, who stayed true to her feelings, kept her love, and accepted her fate,” Kholina says.
Still, Kholina says, Onegin is not necessarily an unscrupulous person for his treatment of Tatyana. He lets her go, in part because he desires freedom and wishes not to be tied down, but also because he knows he cannot give her what she wants.
“What really moves me personally is that Onegin did not use Tatyana when he could have. He behaved as a noble person. He is not a bad character in my opinion,” Kholina says. “Why did he behave like this? Maybe because he truly cared for her and did not want to ruin her youth. Why does he run away from her? Maybe because he is not ready to commit and felt like he is falling in love with her — a common character trait of the modern man.”
The action takes place in front of a massive mirrored wall, tilting up and down, suggesting the multiple perspectives playing out on stage. The original score composed by Faustus Latenas incorporates Russian and French folk songs as well as fragments of music by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich (but nothing from Tchaikovsky’s opera).
Tuminas, the Vakhtangov company’s artistic director, selected parts of Pushkin’s verse and put it into the mouths of the characters. But perhaps the most powerful aspects of the production are the wordless sequences filled with lyrical, sometimes haunting images: the graceful movements of ballerinas; a dancing white rabbit being chased by a frustrated hunter as snow falls around the traveling carriage; the tattered pieces of Tatyana’s famous letter to Onegin placed inside a picture frame and hung on the wall; women in flowing white garments suspended from swings above a society ball; Tatyana, hoping to understand the man who has rejected her and fled, laying out Onegin’s notebooks in a line as the pages flap in a gusty breeze.
By the end, the tables have turned, and Onegin is left crushed, bitter, and alone.
“He wants to be loved, as every person does,” Guskov says. “But he doesn’t know how to love himself, because he doesn’t know how to give of himself.”
Still, the theatrical adaptation, like Pushkin’s novel, doesn’t really impart moral lessons or denounce any of its characters.
“Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, they put their moral values on the reader. But Pushkin is just a storyteller,” Maksakova says. “He loved his characters and didn’t judge them.”