The transformation from a novel in verse to an opera
Although written in the early 1800s, Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse written by Alexander Pushkin, is still regarded as one of the most influential and beautifully written pieces of work to this day. As it shifted cultural norms, opened new discussions, gave way to new forms of writing, and introduced novel approaches that envisioned life in a different light, Eugene Onegin was revolutionary. With its central theme revolving around the conflict between dreams and reality, the novel in verse caught the attention of readers all over the world, with over thirteen translations written. As well, other artists have adapted the work and interpreted it through their own art forms, including a ballet by John Cranko in 1965, and the famous opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which opened in 1879. Tchaikovsky’s interpretation in particular gathered much success and worldwide recognition, arguably more than that of Pushkin’s novel. While the characters and the storyline are mainly preserved, Pushkin’s main characters – Lensky, Onegin, and Tatyana – become more multi-dimensional and relatable in Tchaikovsky’s opera. Because he was an artist in the romanticism era, Tchaikovsky adds his own inspiration to the novel when changing it to an opera, creating many noticeable distinctions between the two. Compared to the novel in verse, the operatic version of Eugene Onegin has various deviations due to Tchaikovsky’s romanticism and character bias, which include changes in the duel scene, the increased favouritism of certain characters by Tchaikovsky, and the absence of a narrator. Throughout the course of Pushkin’s novel in verse, there are four main parts of the storyline that grab the attention of the reader and create the plot. One of the four scenes is a duel between Onegin and his best friend Vladimir Lensky, after Lensky caught Onegin flirting shamelessly with his fiancée. This scene was considerably altered between both artworks, as there was a very strong difference in the portrayal of Onegin’s guilt in the novel and in the opera. In Pushkin’s novel Onegin is very remorseful and heartbroken after killing his best friend. The narrator notes:
Deluged with instant cold,
Onegin hastens to the youth,
Looks, calls him… vainly:
He is no more. The youthful bard
Has met with an untimely end!
In the ache of the heart’s remorse,
His hand squeezing the pistol,
At Lensky Eugene looks.
“well, what – he’s dead,” pronounced the neighbor [Zaretsky] Dead!... With this dreadful interjection
Smitten, Onegin with a shudder
Walks hence and calls his men.
In this piece, it is evident that Onegin is deeply conflicted with the crime he had committed. Dealing with the death of his friend, Onegin leaves town to find peace of mind. In the opera, however, Tchaikovsky leaves little time for Onegin’s mourning. In the novel, Zaretsky, a friend of Lensky who attended the duel, is the first to speak after the fight finishes. Contrary to the novel, instead of Zaretsky being the first to speak of the death, it is Onegin who brusquely asks “Is he dead?” In most stagings of this opera, Onegin simply walks to Lenksy’s body as if to double-check his passing. As scholar Julia Torgovitskaya states, “Because in an opera it would be difficult to convey a considerable length of time passing [i.e. for Onegin to mourn Lensky’s death], Tchaikovsky allows the scene to end right after Lensky has fallen.” The result of this change of scene from the novel to the opera is highly profound. In Pushkin’s story, readers are able to sympathize with Onegin in understanding his regret. Readers turn to Onegin and Tatyana’s communion as the happy ending they yearn for in the face of Lenksy’s tragic death. In the opera, on the other hand, the audience begins to demonize Onegin, and there is a negative incline and desire for Onegin and Tatyana to be together. This single scene, being different between the two...
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