Sunday, October 13, 2013

Following a train of thought: Eugene Onegin - The Duel

Onegin and Lensky's duel, by Ilya Repin, 1899

The second of two scenes:

II. The Duel
A hotheaded young poet becomes enraged at an acquaintance's flirtatious attentions to his beloved, and challenges him to a duel. It's a famous scene from Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. But, as with Tatyana's letter, life came to tragically imitate art.

In 1831 the 32-year-old Pushkin had married the 18-year-old Natalya Goncharova, and the couple became fixtures in the fashionable life of St. Petersburg. Natalya was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Russian society and had many admirers both before and after her marriage, including Tsar Nicholas I.

Natalya Pushkina, by A. P. Bryullov, 1832
One of those admirers was Georges d'Anthès, a dashing young cavalry officer just a few months older than Natalya. It was d'Anthès' attentions to his wife that Pushkin resented, and with good reason. In a January 1836 letter to his adoptive father (and rumored lover), Baron Jacob van Heeckeren, d'Anthès wrote of Natalya:
"...I am madly in love! Yes, madly, for I do not know which way to turn. I will not tell you her name, because letters can go astray, but remember the most delicious creature in Petersburg and you will know her name, and what is most horrible about my position is that she loves me too, and we cannot see each other, it has been impossible up to now, for the husband is revoltingly jealous...To love one another and only to be able to speak of this between two figures of a quadrille is terrible." [1]
Apart from d'Anthès own claims, is there any evidence that Natalya returned d'Anthès' feelings? Pushkin himself once remarked, "Il l'a troublée," which can be variously rendered; perhaps "he disconcerted her" or "he flustered her" would be fair approximations. We also have the diary of Mariya Mörder, a maid of honour to the Empress Alexandra. Mörder described d'Anthès as "astonishingly handsome"; she wrote of seeing d'Anthès and Natalya together at a ball in February 1836, "they were madly in love! happy they seemed at that moment!" [2]

Georges d'Anthès
If there was a mutually acknowledged attraction between the two, it would hardly be surprising. Like Tatyana's sister Olga in Eugene Onegin, Natalya was light-hearted, youthful and flirtatious; Pushkin was emotionally volatile, describing himself as "changeable, jealous, susceptible, violent and weak, all at the same time." [3] He was also unfaithful: perhaps one reason he was so furious at d'Anthès' pursuit of Natalya was that it held an unflattering mirror up to his own not-very-admirable behavior.

During the Shrovetide celebrations of mid-February 1836, d'Anthès attempted to go beyond dancing and flirting, and initiate an affair with Natalya (who by then was several months' pregnant, although her condition may have been concealed by her tight corsets and voluminous dresses). He wrote to Heeckeren that Natalya
"...refus[ed] to violate her duties for a man whom she loves and who adores her; she described her situation to me with such lack of constraint, asked my pardon with such naïvete, that I was really conquered and could not find a word to reply. If you know how she consoled me, for she knew I was suffocating and was in a terrible state, and when she said to me: 'I love you as I have never loved, but never ask more than my heart, for all the rest does not belong to me and I can only be happy in honouring all my duties, pity me and love me always as you do now, my love will be your recompense'; I tell you, I would have fallen at her feet to kiss them had I been alone." [4]
How much of this conversation indicates true feeling and how much is the conventional language of flirtation and the courtly cavalier servente tradition is difficult to say (and to our uncertainties we can add d'Anthès unreliability as a narrator). This scene does bear a striking resemblance, though, to a moment at the end of Eugene Onegin. After an absence of several years, Onegin returns to St. Petersburg; one night at a ball he sees Tatyana—no longer a lovestruck country girl, but now a regal, self-possessed lady of the court, married to a prince. In Pushkin's poem, Tatyana's husband is briefly mentioned as a "grand general," and has a few lines of dialogue; in the opera, Tchaikovsky amplifies the character, giving Prince Gremin a warm and tender aria in which he expresses his devotion to his wife.

Onegin is dazzled by the new Tatyana, and in an ironic reversal writes her a passionate letter. Receiving no response, he finds a way into her house:
          "...An emotion
of wild repentance and devotion
threw Eugene at her feet—..." [5]
Tatyana then reproves him:
          "...I beseech you, go;
I know your heart: it has a feeling
for honour, a straightforward pride.
I love you (what's the use to hide
behind deceit or double-dealing?)
but I've become another's wife—
and I'll be true to him, for life." [6]
Here is how Tchaikovsky rendered the scene. His Tatyana, because she is more vulnerable, more conflicted, and more anguished, and because she has a husband who loves her to distraction, is even more sympathetic; and, of course, the music adds another emotional dimension:

But life rarely has the satisfying finality of art. D'Anthès continued to pursue Natalya more or less openly as she returned to society in late summer after the birth of her daughter. Anonymous letters were soon circulated that implied that Pushkin had been cuckolded, and a duel was barely averted when d'Anthès agreed to marry Natalya's sister (!). Now Natalya's (and Pushkin's) brother-in-law, d'Anthès used his new familial proximity to intensify his campaign of seduction.

Finally, at a winter ball attended by all the court (including the Tsar), d'Anthès' overfamiliar behavior towards Natalya enraged Pushkin to such an extent that a duel became inevitable. It took place in the early evening of Wednesday, January 27, 1837. According to the rules agreed on by the seconds, cloaks were placed on the ground ten paces apart. The two men would begin twenty paces apart; at a signal, each man could advance up to where the cloak had been placed, and fire at any time. D'Anthès fired first, and Pushkin fell, mortally wounded. (He was able to raise himself on his left arm and shoot d'Anthès, wounding him in the arm and chest, but not fatally.) Pushkin died two days later.

Alexander Pushkin, by Vasily Tropinin, 1827
In Eugene Onegin Lensky and Onegin attend a ball held at the Larin's for Tatyana's name-day (January 25). In his boredom with and contempt for the rural society in which he finds himself, Onegin decides to revenge himself on both Tatyana and Lensky by monopolizing and openly flirting with Tatyana's sister Olga. Lensky and Olga have been sweethearts from childhood, and Lensky is infuriated by Onegin's deliberate affront and by Olga's flattered acquiescence.

A challenge is issued, and the poet meets the jaded man of fashion at dawn the next morning. As with the addition of Prince Gremin's aria, there is a telling difference between the opera and the novel. In Pushkin's original Lensky writes a poem in the predawn darkness full of romantic clichés. Onegin, although he feels some affection for Lensky, can't take either his poetic or his romantic aspirations entirely seriously, and neither, Pushkin signals us, should we.

In the opera, though, Lensky's poem becomes an aria of longing and foreboding; Tchaikovsky's sweeping music gives the moment quite a different weight than does Pushkin's irony:

Finally, the outcome of the duel seems eerily prescient of Pushkin's own death:

The video excerpts in this post are taken from the 2007 Metropolitan Opera production conducted by Valery Gergiev and featuring Renée Fleming as Tatyana, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin, and Ramon Vargas as Lensky. Robert Carsen's effectively spare production places the emphasis on the intimate drama between the characters, as Tchaikovsky desired. This production has been issued on DVD and is also available through Met Opera on Demand; it's strongly recommended.

On CD, the first choice by general consensus is the 1955 mono recording with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatyana, Evgeny Belov as Onegin, and Sergei Lemeshev as Lensky, accompanied by the Bolshoi Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Boris Khaikin. I haven't heard it, but I am definitely going to seek it out.

Khaikin's conducting is praised as "nuanced" and "delicate." By all accounts on the other end of the emotional spectrum is the version conducted by James Levine in 1988. It features Mirella Freni as Tatyana, Thomas Allen as Onegin, Neil Shicoff as Lensky and Anne Sofie von Otter as Olga, accompanied by the Staatskapelle Dresden. Levine's lush, passionate approach is highly effective, and the cast is excellent (even if none of the principals is Russian); Shicoff is an especially ardent Lensky. It was this version that I happened across at a library sale this summer, and which inspired me to seek out Pushkin's brilliant novel in verse. T. J. Binyon's biography of Pushkin (Knopf, 2003) was an invaluable source for this post, and is fascinating in its own right.

Next time: Vikram Seth's Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy

Last time: Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin - The Letter


1. T. J. Binyon, Pushkin: A Biography, Knopf, 2003, pp. 502-503.
2. Binyon, pp. 503-504.
3. Binyon, pp. 245.
4. Binyon, pp. 504-505.
5. Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, translated by Charles Johnston. Penguin, 1979, p. 228.
6. Eugene Onegin, p. 231.

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