Alexander Pushkin is considered the founder of Russian literature and is easily the country’s most celebrated poet. For the centennial of Pushkin’s 1837 death, the Moscow Chamber Theatre commissioned a staging of the poet’s novel-in-verse, “Eugene Onegin.” Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a largely unpublished Russian prose writer who worked as a stage adaptor, was to write it, and the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was to compose the music. But the script was thought to be too controversial, and the project was scrapped in December 1936. Krzhizhanovsky died mostly unknown in 1950, and his “Eugene Onegin” was never produced — until now.
In 2007, Simon Morrison, a music professor at Princeton, unearthed a copy of Krzhizhanovsky’s original “Eugene Onegin” script with Prokofiev’s notes in the Moscow archives. Slavic languages and literatures professor Caryl Emerson translated the play into English verse in conjunction with James E. Falen, professor emeritus of Russian at the University of Tennessee. Their translation of “Eugene Onegin” is part of a weekend-long After the End of Music History conference, organized by Morrison and Emerson, where academics from all over the country will come together at Princeton to discuss censorship and modern trends in music.
The conference begins Feb. 9 with a performance of a 40-instrument orchestration of Prokofiev’s score by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, complete with choreographed dancing and readings from the original Pushkin text. On Feb. 10, the play will have its world premiere at Princeton University in the Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street.
The production was directed by Tim Vasen, Acting Director of the Program in Theater. Vasen says Krzhizhanovsky has been “very much on my mind as we have put ‘Eugene Onegin’ together.”
“I find him a fascinating figure and an absolutely brilliant writer. His short stories ... reveal a mind obsessed with fragments, seams, cracks — in the street, between words, in narrative logic, between thought and action — and that has led us to pay close attention to ... Pushkin’s original ... and also to the space between scenes as we move from place to place.”
Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” is told by a narrator who relates the story of his friend Eugene Onegin and his love interest, Tatyana. The Krzhizhanovsky version keeps the verse but divides the novel into 14 “fragments,” each one flowing into the next.
“The effect is unifying rather than unsettling,” said Katie McGunagle ’14, who plays Olga Larina and Young Man #3. “Scenes are moved around a bit; certain pieces are cut, but Krzhizhanovsky retains the emotional arc of the play the way the novel-in-verse does, amplifying what needs to be amplified but retaining an acute awareness of the symbolic and the simple.”
Since almost no production notes were left behind, Vasen and Emerson have had a lot of opportunities for interpretation in the production. “We have tried to be faithful to his vision,” Vasen said, “but of course the audience is not the one he was writing for in Moscow in 1936, so we have also tried to find ways to bring our contemporary crowd, who may know nothing about Pushkin or Onegin, inside the experience. That has been the biggest and most stimulating challenge for me.”
“The production is faithful to the spirit of the play, yes, and I think both Pushkin and the adaptor would have been thrilled with it. Mostly because it thoroughly communicates to audiences today,” Emerson said.
For such an ambitious, intensely academic project, the cast members had to have a broad understanding of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” Krzhizhanovsky and Russian culture. Thus, Emerson and Vasen designed the Fall 2011 course SLA 381: Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Petersburg 1823-31/Moscow 1936/Princeton 2012). Vasen chose his actors from the pool of undergraduates who auditioned for the course. The 15 students who enrolled in the course both act in the play and work as the crew, with help from a few drama department liaisons for costumes and props. Gabriel Crouse ’12 plays Eugene Onegin and Elena Garadja ’12 plays Tatyana.
To get ready for such an undertaking, the small cast of students began with an in-depth analysis of Pushkin’s text before reading a few of Krzhizhanovsky’s short stories. Finally, they read the Krzhizhanovsky play and the roles were cast.
What students seemed to appreciate most about the course is that it gave them the opportunity to have a greater role in the production of the play. “Caryl and Tim were fantastic in the sense that they treated our minds like first audience members,” McGunagle said. “We became the critics, the ones they brought ideas to first, because we were the ones going to experience the final product.”
“I had long envisioned ‘Eugene Onegin’ as being a very student-driven project,” Vasen said, “I’m very happy to see so much of their creativity and intelligence on display in the production.”
The course also allowed the actors to gain a real appreciation for the play and its historical significance. McGunagle said the extensive coursework made her better prepared to act: “We had a semester to prepare: a semester of researching, learning, studying, trying out, interpreting, arguing, analyzing. With such a vast background knowledge, every movement on stage feels natural and understood. I’ve never felt more comfortable on a set.”
“Working on this production has been incredible,” said Molly Brean ’13, who worked as stage manager. “I’ve been exposed to it before through classes and seeing the classic Tchaikovsky production in St. Petersburg, but this particular iteration is all about turning the classics on their head.”
With a dedicated cast in such a monumental production, it will be worthwhile to see how they do so.
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