Eugene Onegin

by Andy Smith

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 2, 2014

The cast of ’Eugene Onegin’
The cast of ’Eugene Onegin’  (Source:New York City Center)

A large Russian contingent was on hand for May 29th's American premiere of Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre's staging of "Eugene Onegin" at City Center, with many genuinely moved audience members giving the more than three-hour production a standing ovation.

While you don't have to be Russian or fluent in the language to be impressed by this inspired production, to have a transcendent experience, it probably helps. Monolingual audience members leave the theater dazzled by the stagecraft and the performances, but largely unawed by a relatively simple story expanded to epic proportions.

Performed in Russian (and some French) with easy-to-follow supertitles -- this may be the first full stage production based on Alexander Pushkin's 1833 "novel in verse," an iconic work that's served as the basis for two significant films, Tchaikovsky's 1879 opera, and John Cranko's frequently performed ballet that incorporates Tchaikovsky's music.

Much of Onegin's 'epicness' stems from its place in Russian literary history and the esteem generated by Pushkin's work and heroic aura. While the staging, music and most of the key performances transcend language, Russia's national poet was, obviously, a master of his native tongue and the poetry loses something in the simultaneous translation.

Language barrier aside, this is a stunning production that combines almost all things stereotypically Russian -- from ballet, elements of folk music and a duel, to majestic gusts of snow and narration dominated by the pervasive, gloomy worldview espoused by its title character, who in many ways was a stand-in for the author, who died at age 37 from wounds sustained in a duel.

The older Onegin, drinking with friends in a ballet studio 30 years after the events of the main storyline, narrates the story. The plot follows the tragic love story of the title character -- a jaded, world-weary intellectual of 18(!), and Tatyana, 17, the shy, bookish daughter of a rural landowner. He visits her family's estate with his friend Lensky, a young poet.

Standouts among the large ensemble cast include the wonderfully expressive Eugeniya Kregzhde as Tatyana, Mariya Volkova as her flibbertigibbet sister "Olga," and Ludmila Maksakova.

The virginal Tatyana falls for Onegin, writes him a passionate letter and then suffers the embarrassment of being gently let down. He's not ready for marriage.

Years pass, the hero travels, drinks, gambles and grows still wearier. Tatyana puts love aside and follows her widowed mother's wishes by marrying an older war hero. When they meet again, the jaded Onegin is charmed; the shy, awkward girl has evolved into a polished beauty. Now a proper married lady, she's genuinely offended by his display of inappropriate affection.

Standouts among the large ensemble cast include the wonderfully expressive Eugeniya Kregzhde as Tatyana, Mariya Volkova as her flibbertigibbet sister "Olga," and Ludmila Maksakova, who plays both Tatyana's nanny and an elderly ballet dancing master. Alexei Guskov's powerful voice is perfect for the older Onegin.

The true star of the production, however, is Director Rimas Tuminas, Vakhtangov State Academic Theater's acclaimed artistic director. His literal use of "smoke and mirrors" is inspired. The large cast performs in front of a mirrored backdrop, which creates a dazzling extra dimension. Effectively incorporating elements more characteristic of opera or ballet, the production features a giant bear, a dancing bunny, one girl playing a mandolin/another with an accordion, dancers floating above the stage and other flights of fancy.

In Russian, the novel "Eugene Onegin" was barely 100 pages, but it took a genius like Nabokov two volumes to effectively translate the verse into English, and the language difficulty remains a roadblock to appreciating this great work in English.

Though it's a magnificent production, well worth seeing, for American audience members, the State Theatre of Russia's production suffers the same fate. Sunday's 3:00 matinee is the last performance at New York's City Center, but it moves on to Boston's Cutler Majestic Theatre for two performances on June 6-7.

"Eugene Onegin" runs through June 1 at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY. For tickets or information, call CityTix at 212-581-1212 or visit