Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin's 1833 masterpiece verse novel Eugene Onegin is not only one of the treasures of Russian literature, it is also the inspiration for an opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin, 1879), a ballet by John Cranko (Onegin, 1965) and a film by Martha Fiennes (Onegin, 1999). Pushkin's story is endlessly fascinating because it is absolutely compelling. The young and provincial Tatiana Larina writes a love letter to the urbane Eugene Onegin which he returns to the infatuated girl with a condescending lecture about misguided love. When Onegin flirts with Tatiana's sister Olga, her fianc_, Lensky, (also Onegin's friend) challenges him to a duel and is killed. Years later, Onegin finds that Tatiana has become an alluring and sophisticated married woman. This time, he is the one who writes the passionate letter but Tatiana orders him out of her life.
The film is something of a family affair. Acclaimed British actor Ralph Fiennes plays Onegin, sister Martha directs, while brother Magnus composed the music. The Fiennes see Onegin as a sympathetic character, and the film focuses on his emotional journey from indifferent snob to spurned lover. For Tchaikovsky and Cranko, Tatiana is the heart of the story and they had little compassion for Onegin.
A film can more fully reflect Pushkin's novel by providing background detail. The financially embarrassed Onegin has arrived in the hinterland to claim the estate of his dead uncle. While out hunting, he meets Lensky whose family owns the neighboring estate and the two become immediate friends. The idealistic poet Lensky has attended Gottingen University in Germany, and Onegin cannot understand why he buries himself in the provinces. The film shows us that after Lensky's death, Olga becomes engaged to a Hussar, while Tatiana is sent to St. Petersburg where her rich relative Princess Alina presents the girl into society so she can find a husband.
Film editing also allows foreshadowing and parallelism. As Onegin reads Tatiana's letter, the camera cuts to her ink-stained hands nervously kneading her white nightdress. Shots of the frozen wastes of St. Petersburg's Neva River are shown before we finally see Onegin make his lonely way through the snow at the film's end. The gorgeous exterior shots of St. Petersburg with its magnificent 18th-century architecture, the scores of extras, even the skating scene on the Neva‹all make the film larger than anything that could ever be mounted on stage.
Particularly intriguing are the subtle differences involving the fatal duel. In the opera, Onegin overhears a guest at Tatiana's name day gossiping about him as the girl's fianc_, which infuriates him. Angry that Lensky dragged him to this bourgeois party, Onegin monopolizes Olga during the dancing. The jealous Lensky sees Onegin as a seducer, out to take advantage of Olga's innocence, and that is why he challenges him to a duel. Cranko, not able to use words, brilliantly creates movement which has Onegin deliberately search out Olga to convince Tatiana that he is not interested in her, and which Lensky takes as a personal affront. The film is closer to Pushkin. When Lensky calls Onegin a seducer, Onegin counters with the fact that Lensky is blind‹that it would be simple to seduce Olga because she is foolish and easy. Thus, Lensky challenges him to a duel because Onegin has insulted Olga's honor.
The secondary characters are also used for different effects. In the opera, M. Triquet, the French tutor, is a charming old man whose birthday ode to Tatiana serves as comic relief as the tension mounts between Lensky and Onegin. The film portrays Triquet as a pompous lecher with designs on Olga. Cranko, on the other hand, eliminates the character altogether. In both opera and film, Prince Gremin has no prior meeting with Tatiana before we meet him as her husband. Cranko's ballet has Gremin as a distant admirer of Tatiana's and a guest at her name-day party.
The glory of the opera is its arias that let us touch the souls of the characters‹Tatiana pouring her heart out in her letter, Lensky's sad lament before the duel, Gremin's loving paean to his young wife, Onegin's turbulent feelings after recognizing the mature Tatiana. Cranko's story is told in a series of magnificent duets. Tatiana's letter becomes an impassioned dream pas de deux with Onegin, while the final intense encounter has Tatiana as the stronger partner, loving Onegin but distancing herself from him. Olga's and Lensky's pas de deux is charming and light-hearted, while Tatiana's and Gremin's is stately and formal. Cranko has even included an emotionally charged duet for Tatiana and Olga at the duel scene. The movie with its close-ups and voice-overs, brings us face to face with the characters and their thoughts. Martha Fiennes has used a delicate brush. As the camera lingers on silent faces, what is not said becomes as important as what is spoken. The prevailing mood of melancholy is reflected in the blue-grey tint of the cinematography.
As for poor Tchaikovsky, while he was composing Tatiana's "Letter Scene", he began to receive love missives from a former student, Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova. He identified himself with Onegin and Antonina with Tatiana. Not wanting to be a cruel Onegin, he agreed to meet her, and shortly after, proposed in July 1877. Unable to consummate his marriage, and being forced to recognize his true homosexual nature, Tchaikovsky attempted suicide in October that year. His brother Anatoly took him for a rest cure in Switzerland where he was able to complete the opera. Sadly, Pushkin's powerful and enduring story became the wellspring for life mirroring art.
Paula Citron is a Toronto-based arts journalist and senior dance writer at The Globe and Mail.