Eugene Onegin makes a double return to Hebrew stage

The Israeli Opera is producing Tchaikovsky’s adaptation to Pushkin’s 1825 same-titled poetic triumph.

 FROM LEFT, Ido Mosseri in the role of Pushkin, Firas Nassar in the role of Vladimir Lensky and Shlomi Bartonov as Eugene Onegin in 'Onegin. Commentaries.' (photo credit: GESHER THEATER)
FROM LEFT, Ido Mosseri in the role of Pushkin, Firas Nassar in the role of Vladimir Lensky and Shlomi Bartonov as Eugene Onegin in 'Onegin. Commentaries.'
(photo credit: GESHER THEATER)

Eugene Onegin, his friend and foe Vladimir Lensky, and their respective love interests, Tatyana and Olga, will grace the Hebrew stage once more this winter at two separate locations.

The Israeli Opera is producing Tchaikovsky’s adaptation to Pushkin’s 1825 same-titled poetic triumph under conductor Dan Ettinger with the roles sung in Russian by baritone Andrei Bondarenko (Onegin), tenor Alexei Dolgov (Lensky) and soprano Ira Bertman (Tatyana).

At the same time, Gesher Theater is staging a Hebrew adaptation, Onegin. Commentaries, by Latvian director Alvis Hermanis as part of Jaffa Fest 2021. The production includes actors Shlomi Bartonov (Onegin), Firas Nassar (Lensky) and Lena Freifeld (Tatyana). Unlike the opera, the theater adaptation follows the original poetic work to include Pushkin himself (Ido Mosseri) and, as befitting the title, allows the audience to experience the different contexts Pushkin operates in.

Onegin, who is unable to love Tatyana, taunts his friend Lensky by inviting Olga to dance during a ball. The raging Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin accepts and shoots Lensky dead. Olga marries another man. After several years, Onegin is reintroduced to Tatyana – now a married woman – and falls head over heels for her. Will he be able to reform his character and know true happiness? The work might have ended differently had Pushkin himself not died in a duel as well in 1837.

The greatest of all Russian poetic talents, Pushkin did more than form unforgettable characters. He became Russia’s Homer and gave it its own Shield of Achilles. A poetic snapshot of a complete civilization from its literary magazines and dining habits to the type of pistols it dueled with. Unlike the Greek bard, Pushkin operated in a world that was already on the cusp of modernity. Onegin may live in a world in which the envelope had not yet been invented, but the printing press is in full swing. His characters read, quote, and inhabit mental worlds rich with references to Byron, Shakespeare, Chateaubriand, Adam Smith and others.

 EUGENE ONEGIN (credit: YOSSI ZWECKER) EUGENE ONEGIN (credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

Pushkin, who became a point of reference to almost every major Russian poet after him, uses Eugene Onegin to settle literary scores, honor living and dead friends, dodge the Czarist censorship and crack jokes. When Avraham Shlonsky took up the challenge to offer the Hebrew reader a version of this rhymed novel, a task Bialik himself balked at, he kept working on the original 1937 translation for another 30 years with the final, fifth, version released in 1966. 

When Vladimir Nabokov offered his own 1964 English translation he spent half a page explaining how all other translators misunderstood a specific plant Pushkin alludes to in one line. This extreme need to control every aspect of this famous work is not uncommon. From Russian plants to the Boston card game to how German bakers opened their service window to sell bread. If Pushkin mentions, for example, a fine pair of legs, several academics claim to know which woman he had in mind. The Gesher production declined to use Shlonsky’s work and instead employs the 2012 translation by Yoel Netz.

“Russian-speaking actors told me I have the right looks to play Pushkin since I graduated acting school,” Ido Mosseri says.

Short with curly hair, Mosseri shared that his rich Egyptian-Polish legacy is one more thing he has in common with the great poet, who was partly black.

“It is a huge honor for me to portray Pushkin,” he says, noting this is his second time. Having played the poet for a brief role in 2005 at a different production that sought to bring the highlights of Russian culture to the Israeli audience.

Mosseri, who is familiar to international audiences as Adam’s Sandler’s Israeli sidekick in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, explains that one of the things that makes this production special is that the audience will encounter the actors as themselves as they grapple for a way to enter the fictional work and become the characters.

“We use our bodies, props, and a recreation of Pushkin’s room,” he notes. “I start the show with a joke as I note it is impossible to fully offer Pushkin in Hebrew. We don’t hide this issue from the audience, instead, we invite patrons to embark with us on a journey to try and solve it.”

Shlomi Bartonov (Eugene) said all the characters are young people who inhabit a society that very much limits their ability to fully express themselves.

“They are forced to live up to ideals other people formulated and Eugene does what he can to oppose this, these are things that I too, as Shlomi, can relate to.”

In the original work, Eugene often behaves against the norms of his day and time. Drinking Merlot instead of vodka or fleeing on horse when neighbors pay him social calls. Yet, this boldness and free-thinking does not sway him from murdering his friend in a duel. Which is very much according to the norms of his time and place.

“When war is brought to his doorstep he feels compelled to fight this duel,” Bartonov says, “which Lensky thrusts upon him.”

“We are engaging in a performative event during which young people face these values, which are of the hegemony, and seek ways to push against them,” he adds.

Tchaikovsky struggled with himself all his life, opera conductor Dan Ettinger points out, alluding to the now widely accepted understanding that Tchaikovsky was LGBT at a time when to openly be such meant ruin. “This hysteric need to find an outlet for his inner struggle [in music] demanded courage which grabs all possible tools at hand,” he says.

IF PUSHKIN was a poet who struggled with the grand theme of how Russia – “Wherein I buried left my heart” – should relate to the West, Tchaikovsky was extremely proud of his Russian identity. Employing folk melodies in some of his best-known works.

“This is one of the few times I do not speak the language of an opera I am conducting,” Ettinger says. “This challenge is interesting to me because I have an obsession with this opera like I have with only one other, Salome by Strauss.”

Ettinger, who encountered this opera in 2003 when he was an assistant conductor and again in 2011 as general musical director at the Mannheim National Theatre, will bring to this production all his “muscle memory” and skills as he, and us, re-meet with this great work.

One of the singers Ettinger will encounter again is Ira Bertman (Tatyana) who sang the same role under him at Mannheim.

“Most Russian speakers get to know Tatyana when they are 14 years old,” she says. This is because most schools demand their students know Tatyana’s letter by heart. Pushkin himself labored on it, seeing as Tatyana speaks Russian but is used to writing in French. The result places Tatyana as a woman who follows her inner truth and conviction to the end. Perhaps the first case in Western literature where a woman writes a love letter to a man.

“She’s not a fake person,” Bertman explains, “which is why she declines to have an affair with him [Eugene] once she is married despite the fact that, at the time, this was a socially accepted thing. That a wife would have admirers.”

Revival Director Regina Alexandrovskaya opens her purse to take out a mini-copy of the poetic work as she describes its finer points. When she staged it in Texas, she instructed the Texans on Russian social etiquettes.

“Americans and Russians are different,” she says. “Russians smile when something is funny, not all the time. Lensky, for example, does not smile when he enters a room.”

When Onegin was read in class to Russian teenagers during Pushkin’s lifetime, the young women were shocked by his usage of French words in a Russian work and referred to him as indecent. “People forget he was a naughty guy,” Alexandrovskaya remarks.

When asked about the temptation to present Onegin as a flashy, magical Russian spectacle with fancy balls and costumes she shares that in Russia such overly seductive productions are called ‘klubnichka’ [strawberry]. “In this production, there are no video screens nor other tricks or strawberries,” she says, “there is life on the stage, as it should be.”

This production is also, in a way, a triumph over the hardships of COVID-19 seeing as it was canceled two years ago and is now being staged with almost all of the original cast. “Productions usually start four or even five years before the premiere,” Artistic Administrator Michael Ajzenstadt, who has worked at the opera since it moved to its new location at King Saul Blvd a generation ago, says.

“It’s an international field and all opera houses in the world compete over the same talents,” he adds.

Bridging between the tasks of a skilled manager, administrator, and maybe even psychologist, it is Ajzenstadt’s role to foresee and prevent problems. From a husband who called him after the 9/11 terror attacks to ensure his wife (who was on stage) will not hear the bad news until he sees her, to the personal lives of the many people involved in the production, Ajzenstadt’s job is to ensure things run smoothly.

“Smartphones made things harder,” he sighs. Noting that the constant need to be updated – the phone owner, not the fictional character – is one more challenge to reckon with.

“There are as many ways to make the switch,” from Bertman to Olga or from Bondarenko to Onegin “as there are people in the world,” he says. “It is not taught; it must be experienced.”

For more visit www.israel-opera.co.il/ and (Hebrew and Russian only) https://www.jaffafest.com/shows/shows2021