EUGENE ONEGIN THE OPERA: THE FATE OF ‘SUPERFLUOUS MAN’
EUGENE ONEGIN THE OPERA
Eugene Onegin is a man caught in an internal struggle with love objects to whom he is inexorably drawn and from whom he obsessively withdraws. This most famous of Pushkin’s protagonists was transferred to the operatic stage by Tchaikovsky’s eponymous opera, and the narrated libretto tells us that Onegin’s difficulties in responding to love ultimately destroy him.
As the curtain opens, we are introduced to Tatyana and her sister Olga. The background is a remote country estate in rural 19th century Russia, inhabited by two young women, their widowed mother and a few servants. The scene is set for Onegin’s entry into the sisters’ lives. They will be profoundly changed by what follows from this encounter. He appears with his friend Lensky, Olga’s fiancé, an owner of a neighboring estate. The dreamy, bookish sister Tatyana falls in love with Eugene. He is the sophisticated, well-travelled man of the world she had read about, the object of her idealized fantasies. Eugene is a consummate cynic on matters of love. He treats Tatyana as another naïve country girl.
In a daring move, and well outside the strict social conventions of her time, Tatyana sends a love letter to Onegin. He re-appears in her house, holding the letter as one would an incriminating object. His response in a manner of a ‘lecture’ has become known as ‘the sermon’ in literary commentary. He talks about the need for her to contain herself, and to live within the constraints of her upbringing and sex. Emphatically he states that he cannot love her. Tatyana is distraught. This would seem an ordinary tale of unrequited love. But what makes it a characteristic 19th century Russian drama, is the unfolding relationship between Onegin and his poet friend Lensky. They will end up fighting a duel with tragic consequences.
Before the deadly encounter, in the next scene, the two men are again in the company of the sisters. It is Tatyana’s Name Day celebrations. Profoundly wounded by Onegin’s rejection, Tatyana glumly goes along with the merriments. Onegin, however, has already moved on. Swiftly bored, he now flirts with Tatyana’s sister Olga, thus provoking Lensky to demand a duel, the way for men in Tsarist Russia to settle matters of’ honour’. And so, it happens that Onegin kills his best friend. Within a short space of time, Onegin breaks the heart of a local woman, kills his best friend, and devastates the life of the man’s fiancé. It seems anything he comes into contact with collapses.
Onegin escapes the troubled scene, the tragedy and loss he has left behind. He travels away from his estate, from Russia, and presumably, from himself.
In the third act Onegin has returned to Russia, but his restlessness persists. His social status as a gentrified landowner affords him opportunities of fleeting in and out of society balls, bowing and kissing ladies’ gloved hands. There is a sumptuous ball scene in Prince Germin’s palace, who has invited Onegin to meet his wife. This is a surprising turn of events, for it is Tatyana who appears, princess like, blossoming. The country girl who had been crushed by Onegin’s rejection had recovered, and married a man devoted to her. Still she remembers her love for Onegin. For his part, Onegin is shaken by seeing her. As if mirroring the letter sent by Tatyana in first act, it is now Onegin who sends a letter to Tatyana. In it he declares his love, begging her to elope with him. She refuses. Although recognizing she still loves him, she decides to remain faithful to her husband.
The opera ends with Onegin’s failure to win Tatyana back. Quite unusual for the operatic opus, in Eugene Onegin it is the male protagonist who suffers the tragic end.
In this final scene, the ‘chickens come home to roost’ for Onegin, but his response is somewhat equivocal. This ambiguity gives rise to different interpretations of Onegin’s final experience, which, in turn, mirrors the uncertainty in Pushkin’s original story. It is unclear whether Onegin is capable of psychological awareness, and the extent to which there is a degree of self-reflecting consciousness in the portrayal of his personality. Is Onegin’s internal life developing and progressing towards change along the dramatic narrative? Does his long absence from Russia and the expedition abroad, of which we hear very little, represent an internal journey leading to psychic change?
Two recent productions of the opera, one at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the other at the Opera National de Paris at the Bastille, presented an opportunity for a compelling interpretive contrast. While the Met’s production was true to the period, set in an authentic Russian country house, the Paris stage was minimalist in style. But for a sofa and a few chairs the stage was bare. This set remained throughout, and the scenes were changed by lighting which indicated the scene transformations and provided a context to the unfolding story. Shades of orange and yellow, cast on the stage floor in the first act, indicated ripening fields of corn ready for harvest. This emphasised the rural isolation of the two sisters, who passed their days in idle wait to be married, while peasants in the fields and servants in the house did the work.
In the second act, in which the duel between Onegin and his friend Lensky takes place, the floor of the Paris stage was cast with pale blue and grey lighting alluding to a vast ice-covered plain, and perhaps the frozen love between two men about to fight for their lives. An oversized chandelier appeared from the ceiling in the third act, referencing the sumptuous ball in a Tatyana’s new lavish home.
The paucity of artefacts in the French production provided a space for a more nuanced presentation of the characters by the artists. It rested more fully on the singers’ performance and movements on stage, who closely portrayed the emotional textures of the opera, keeping the focus on the dramatic story. The conception presumably was that elaborate sets and sumptuous costumes could be a distraction from the essentials of the story conveyed by the splendid music. The Met’s production, on the other hand, showed the opera in a different visual format altogether, the set being ‘authentically’ 19th Century Russia, with interiors and costumes reconstructing the period.
The contrast between the two productions is most pronounced in the final scene, in which Onegin’s plea that Tatyana should leave her husband and join him, is met with refusal. His anguish as he realises his loss is profoundly palpable on the French stage. Holding the now futile letter, he collapsed on stage, defeated and overcome by this failure and the awareness that hope for love has vanished. He knows that this time Tatyana is not going to be seduced. She will be true to her marriage vows and will hold on to her regained sense of self and place. In the Met production, Onegin’s reaction is differently shown. It is muted, and the audience is left wondering how much he really minds about Tatyana’s snub, and whether he dismisses it as just another romantic episode, from which he might soon move on.
The contrast between these two recent performances is even more pronounced, since they shared the same ‘Onegin’ in the title role, that is Swedish Baritone Peter Mattei. It highlighted the different interpretations. Two kinds of psychological responses could echo a deliberate ambiguity in the original Pushkin text, on which this opera is based. Apparently, Pushkin held back on the exploration of Eugene’s internal drama, perhaps leaving it deliberately vague for the reader and future generations of readers to work out. We see then, that in the Met Opera presentation Onegin’s relatively ‘low key’ reaction and acceptance of Tatyana’s rejection with little resistance, to an extent shows him re-enacting the familiar aloof manner of the first act, in which he is distant and superior. In contrast, in the final act in Paris, he is deeply affected by Tatyana’s rebuttal. Devastated and collapsed on the stage he remains so until the end. Here he is a man changed, when he reappears in Tatyana’s life, possibly after a period of contemplation done during a long journey abroad. Could this imply a parallel internal journey of mourning loss, and a wish to make amends? This is juxtaposed with the Met version, in which he remains the same, as the spectator is left wondering whether his pleading with Tatyana is a ‘gesture’ rather than a deeply felt longing for her, and a truly reparative wish.
ONEGIN, SUPERFLUOUS MAN AND ENNUI
Superfluous man, (Lishny Chelovek in Russian), describes a male character in 19th-century Russian literature. He is the archetypal aristocrat who is wealthy, well educated, and may be informed by idealism and goodwill. For complex reasons, this man is incapable of engaging effectively with the people around him. He is caught up in conflicts and struggles, but he remains a bystander. Pushkin’s Onegin has been assigned by literary critics as the original ‘Redundant Man’, ubiquitous in Russian literature of the period. It has been linked to the specific problematics of the emergence from serfdom, which occurred in Russia later than in Europe. Although such characters can be sympathetically portrayed, Onegin is written to highlight the negativity of an idle, meaningless and disconnected existence. Onegin primarily wastes his life. He breaks the heart of a girl who loves him, leaving her to marry another man, and kills his closest friend. His life becomes strewn with physical and emotional deathliness. What is the inner turmoil that turns a man in a privileged position, capable of potential involvement with social reforms and helping others, into someone whose life permeates useless harmfulness and exploitation?
Important changes were happening at the time. Russia was emerging from the feudal system of the Middle Ages, and serfdom was on the decline. Old certainties about the position of male landowners were falling away, as ‘Modernism’ became the buzz word. Modifications to how life was to be run were introduced, and the intelligentsia were reading and discussing pamphlets on new ‘liberal’ ideas. Owners of vast estates, with large numbers of dependent serfs, the aristocrats had hitherto felt to be in leadership roles, ‘ordained’ from above. This had been an established world order that bestowed on them powers and responsibilities for the people in their charge. As the result of the reforms and new liberal ideas, this position was losing its meaning, sowing doubts about its legitimacy in a new world view. Receding power and authority for an uncertain future was felt at the time as a tectonic shift. It was traumatic. Although still wealthy and responsible for an estate, the old aristocrat could no longer feel his power to be meaningful and just. He increasingly experienced himself as an ineffectual powerless cog in a vast enterprise of social revolution. His position was fragile. He was an anxious man who was losing his purpose and bearings. Defending against deep anxieties and vulnerability ‘superfluous man’ becomes detached and adopts a stance of cynical superiority in relation to others.
A superfluous man (Eugene Onegin) idly polishing his fingernails. Illustration by Elena Samokysh-Sudkovskaya, 1908.
THE INNER LIFE OF SUPERFLUOUS MAN
Because of his aloofness and disinterest, ‘superfluous man’ is suffering from boredom, known in literature as ‘ennui’. It is a persistent feeling of weariness which often afflicts existential man. Having positioned himself as remote and disengaged, he is feeling wanting of something essential. And he is constantly on the lookout for something he doesn’t know. Psychoanalytically viewed, boredom is defined as an affect of apathy (Moore & Fine, 1990). Painfully uncomfortable and suffused with restlessness for the sufferer, it is a defensive attempt at dealing with conflicts surrounding unwelcome unconscious fantasies. This agitation is seen as akin to the hungry baby in need of feeding, who has no mother to respond to his need. Without a responsive mother, there is no ‘holding environment’, and the baby resorts to self-sufficiency, disengaging mind and soma in the process (Winnicott, 1949).
There is an elaboration on this by Bergstein (2009) in terms of the analytic experience of boredom. He ascribes the analyst’s boredom to an unconscious communication, through the countertransference, of an encapsulated part of the psyche. In this the analyst is unconsciously co-opted to re-live with the patient the early primitive experience of being with an unavailable primary object. The unreachable mother is felt as a dead object, and this portentous sense of deathliness is recreated in the analysis.
The psychoanalytic view above would amply explain Onegin’s state of mind, and the deathliness in and around him. Although the opera does not show his background and upbringing, the source material in Pushkin’s lyrical novel is rather expansive on its leading character’s childhood. We learn (from Nabokov’s translation, 1964) that his father squandered his money, however he inherited his uncle’s estate. There is no reference to his mother. He was educated by two teachers, one a Madame, then Monsieur L’Abbe, a Frenchman who spoilt him:
“…taught him all things in play,
bothered him not with stern moralization,
scolded him slightly for his pranks’
…” (p. 96)
In his adolescence “…the season of tumultuous youth
” (Ibid, p. 97), his teacher left. Eugene broke free of whatever little constraint he had endured so far. Charming and clever he travelled the world, ready to embrace it all.
Not much later, however, in early adulthood we encounter Onegin who has now descended into a state of tedium. It is at this stage that we meet him in the Tchaikovsky’s opera, very much as the narrated Pushkin hero: cynical, disillusioned and seemingly luxuriating in vanity:
But by the tumult of the ball fatigued,
and turning morning into midnight,
sleeps peacefully in blissful shade
the child of pastimes and luxury….
Monotonous and motley, and to
‘twill be the same as yesterday.
(Ibid, p. 113, verse 36).
But what is the significance of the absent mother?
Eugene Onegin floats in a seemingly cushioned, though internally and externally threatened world. He is reluctant to attach himself to anything. Feeling burdened by declarations of love, he takes to lecturing the infatuated Tatyana, warning her, as he might himself, against such undertakings. Her passion might resonate inside him, as an alarming bell, echoing something he might have wished for in another time, earlier in his life, perhaps before falling into a state of chronic lethargy and flight. He safeguards his self-imposed isolation by cultivating grandiose fantasies of existence beyond trifles of life, such as love. Onegin needs to warn those who seek his closeness that he cannot match their passion, for unconsciously he fears he is too troubled, and needs to keep apart as a form of protection. He cannot know himself as the intensely bewildered man he is, caught in a painful swirl of contradictions about his identity. Here, one would surmise, the absence of the mother is highly significant. Can he put his trust in love when inside he lives with an absent, deadened mother?
Onegin’s Ennui feeds on itself like a toxic vicious circle. Confused and jumbled up inside, he sets up a series of disastrous events without thought, just because he can. Perhaps this is his only way, however destructive, of influencing the world. This sequence of chaotic actions ends up in a calamity, and he must flee to stop the ruination.
He comes back to face some consequences, or does he?
At the heart of the operatic story lies a mystery about the nature of Onegin’s withdrawal and return. Has Onegin changed? Was his absence abroad a form of retreat in the service of psychic development; or was it just a distraction from facing the consequences of his destructiveness? The two recent and very diverse productions of the opera seem to inspect this seminal question. On the Met stage he produces a ‘display’ of emotion, much in a way of an old habit, without real remorse. The Paris production, however, has him more intent on restitution. His collapse into grief after Tatyana’s refusal portrays a character with real psychic movement following a period of thoughtful reflection. With this perspective in mind, the last scene of the operatic Pushkin story is a remarkable encounter between a woman who possesses resilience and empowerment, and an internally troubled and disordered man. It is likely that facing Tatyana’s unwavering robustness, Onegin finally can feel genuine regret, and the beginning of hope for future transformation.
Bergstein, A. (2009). On Boredom: A Close Encounter with Encapsulated Parts of the Psyche. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 90 (3):613-631.
Moore, B & Fine, B. (1990). Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts. Boredom. In: PEP Consolidated Psychoanalytic Glossary: B. (2016). Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing.
Winnicott, DW. (1949). Mind and its relation to the psyche-soma. In: Through paediatrics to psychoanalysis, 243-54. London: Karnac.
Pushkin, A. (1837) Eugene Onegin. Translated into English by Nabokov, V. (1964). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Sara Collins, 20.08.18