Stage Russia Presents: Eugene Onegin

On September 23, 2016, REEEC hosted a discussion panel for Stage Russia Presents: Eugene Onegin, which was screened at the Art Theater Co-op.  Stage Russia is “an intercultural project that films Russian theater productions which will be distributed into U.S. cinemas, starting this fall with the Vakhtangov Theatre’s ‘arrestingly beautiful’ Eugene Onegin.”  The discussants were Eddie Aronoff, Owner and General Director of Stage Russia, Olga Maslova, Assistant Professor of Costume Design at UIUC, and Valeria Sobol, Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UIUC

Eugene Onegin, originally published serially from 1825 to 1832, is a “novel in verse” written by Aleksandr Pushkin, widely considered Russia’s greatest poet and a founding figure of modern Russian literature. Onegin is the story of the titular St. Petersburg dandy, a cynical “superfluous man” (a literary type based on the Byronic hero) whose tragic fate—which involves unrequited love and unwillingly killing his best friend in a duel—is the central focus of Pushkin’s verse novel. Described by Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky as an “encyclopedia of Russian life,” Onegin is an enduring classic. There are dozens of English translations of the work (hundreds overall), and it was famously adapted into an 1879 opera by Tchaikovsky. However, as Prof. Sobol pointed out, Pushkin is so revered in Russia that staging an adaptation of any sort is already “an act of bravery.”

Rimas Tuminas, the director of the Vakhtangov production of Onegin, devised creative solutions to many of the challenges involved in bringing Pushkin’s text to the stage.  One such potential obstacle is Onegin’s idiosyncratic narrator, a “chatty, playful” persona with “many faces,” who, according to Prof. Sobol, reflects Pushkin’s intent to separate his authorial voice from the character of Onegin. Tuminas decided to distribute the narrator’s discourse among several characters, including a narrator character (a “drunk hussar”).  This production also features two Onegins on stage: the younger one is the locus of action (i.e. takes part in events), and his older self—absent from the original text—looks back on the events of his youth.  In some scenes, young Onegin speaks the lines he spoke in Pushkin’s Onegin, while the older Onegin speaks the narrator’s lines describing his younger self’s inner life.

In her discussion of the production, Prof. Maslova argued that “a good director doesn’t just quote or illustrate [the original text]—he [or she] adds another dimension.” She praised the set design, particularly the large dance-studio mirror in the background, which creates space and changes subtly throughout the production: “Mirrors are one of the hardest things to use on stage.”  She noted that the costumes mixed early 19th-century and modern fashions, blending newer styles with Empire silhouettes. According to Prof. Maslova, “The production is terribly entertaining… you watch it in one breath and come out a better person.”

Along with the transition from text to stage, the Stage Russia project also entails the translation from stage to screen. Aronoff’s initial idea was to bring mid-sized Russian theatrical productions to the United States; when that turned out to be unfeasible, he struck upon the idea of bringing filmed versions to the U.S. Eventually, he met Alexey Shemyatovskiy, the film director who oversees the Vakhtangov and Moscow Art Theatre’s live transmissions. Shemyatovskiy agreed to film and edit Stage Russia productions, becoming an integral part of the project. Aronoff also works with a small team—”my ‘Eddie’s Angels,’ I call them”—including Katya Soloviev, who is responsible for translation into English. For Onegin, she used an earlier British translation, which she “tweaked to her specifications.” (She translated The Cherry Orchard from scratch.) Her translation manages the tricky balancing act of maintaining semantic accuracy while approximating the unique rhyme scheme of Pushkin’s original. According to Aronoff, “the key is, she’s a Russian theater junky.”

Thanks to Shemyatovskiy’s work, Onegin is distinctly cinematic: “there’s a scene that he’s so proud of—I love it when I see it now—where Olga is in the background and Lensky is in the foreground, and he… switches the focus—it’s so beautiful, and you can’t get that in the theater… you don’t feel like you’re watching a play live, but you do feel something… maybe not ‘better,’ ‘but different.'” Shemyatovskiy’s process begins with a technical video (“[they] see what the angles are and what they want to do”), followed by a full shoot with his six-camera crew. For the Stage Russia version of Onegin, he insisted in filming the play twice: “I think the ‘swings scene,’ somehow he felt he missed something on it [the first time].” He also edited the film without input from Aronoff or even Tuminas, who didn’t ask for final approval. (“I guess he had filmed stuff with Alexey for a long time, so he trusted him.”) However, Aronoff says that this isn’t the case for all of the directors they’re working with this season: “Kama Ginkas—we’re doing The Black Monk—he wants to be involved, heavily… I said, ‘You’re a great director, why would I resist having you help direct?’”

Intuitively, one of the obstacles to filming live theater is the difference between acting styles in the two media. Stage performances tend to be louder and more expressive, while screen acting is “smaller” and more naturalistic—a result of the fact that the camera can eliminate the distance between performer and audience. At some moments in Onegin, some of the actors’ expressions are surprisingly understated. However, Aronoff doesn’t think that they adjusted their performances for the camera:

Maybe there was a subtle thing that they were aware of, but [Tuminas] is such a strict director, that I can’t imagine that they would change one note… He’s a taskmaster, almost like Hitchcock… Maybe it’s the same philosophy: “Act as if they can see the tiniest expression in your face.”  It doesn’t feel overly theatrical—but I think that’s also the play.  There are so many quiet moments… capturing the essence of death, of… resignation, and at the same time love, but also sadness… there are some really nice, intimate moments.

Aronoff emphasized that he wanted to “create a diverse landscape of Russian theater.” The next film in the series is the Moscow Art Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Adolf Shapiro (Aronoff: “Chekhov is a no brainer, you’ve gotta do Vanya or Cherry Orchard”). The third film is a modern dance interpretation of Anna Karenina, directed and choreographed by Angelica Cholina (“this kind of [adaptation] is very popular in Moscow right now, The Inspector General was done this way recently”). Other productions planned for this season include The Black Monk (dir. Kama Ginkas), The Three Comrades (dir. Galina Volchek and Alexander Savostianov), and The Suicide (dir. Sergei Zhenovach).

Eugene Onegin and The Cherry Orchard are currently screening in North America, England, and Ireland.  Stage Russia productions will be also shown in Mexico and South America beginning January 2017, and in Australia the following May. For more details, visit Stage Russia on FacebookYouTube, or VKontakte.

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year for the study of Russian.

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