Title: 'Eugene Onegin' updated
Date: May 28, 2009
Author: Robert Johnson
Publisher: The Star-Ledger
NEW YORK -- "Eugene Onegin," one of the great love stories, began as a literary masterpiece. Today, the opera version by Tchaikovsky and the ballet by John Cranko are arguably more familiar than the original 1825 serialized novel in verse by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
On Friday night, yet another adaptation of Pushkin's tale of missed opportunities, deadly quarrels and heartbreak will receive its New York premiere. But the audience will find plenty new in "Onegin," choreographer Boris Eifman's re-telling of "Eugene Onegin" for his Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, which has a three-day run at New York City Center.
Eifman has updated the action, placing Pushkin's lovesick characters in the decidedly un-romantic turmoil of Russia in the years following Perestroika. In Eifman's ballet, instead of marrying a Prince, Pushkin's heroine, Tatiana, becomes a gold-digger married to a blind Mafioso, an ironic comment on the cream of Russia's new society. The doomed poet Lensky becomes one of those underground Pop singers, like Vladimir Vysotsky, whose veiled criticisms of Soviet life developed a wide following. Onegin, of course, is still Onegin -- a casual murderer and a snob who misses the opportunity of a lifetime when he rejects the countrified Tatiana.
"The problem of Onegin is the problem of the superfluous man," Eifman says, "and it's as relevant today as it was 200 years ago. He doesn't fight for his life or his career. He is passive toward life and he throws everything away. He loses the will to live, and when he wants to change something it's too late. He's a typical loser."
To the choreographer, Onegin resembles those people who could not adapt successfully to life in the new Russia, and who despite their talents and education simply faded away.
"Onegin" combines music by Tchaikovsky with an art-rock score by contemporary Russian composer Alexander Sitkovetsky. Zinovy Margolin's scenery is part of an elaborate production incorporating the latest video and lighting technology.
More startling than these updates, however, may be what Eifman has rediscovered in the novel. The choreographer dramatizes the nightmare in which Tatiana has a premonition of Lensky's death. And he expands upon the idea, merely hinted at by Pushkin, that young Lensky's "blood-bespattered specter" haunts his murderer. "Onegin" is clearly less sentimental and more sensational than the previous adaptations of Pushkin's novel, but the choreographer hopes his version is also more profound. In addition to returning to the original text for inspiration, Eifman informed his ballet by reading Pushkin's letters and by studying literary criticism, immersing himself in the poet's life and work.
"When you make an adaptation, you kill some of the original feeling, the original atmosphere and illusion of this book," Eifman says. "You can see this in the opera." Eifman says that in his own version, however, "I try to save all those things from Pushkin, but at same time show something new. This is really Pushkin. But maybe not the Pushkin everybody knows."