For lovers of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, Eugene Onegin takes us back to Imperial Russia, where young Tatyana Larina falls for her brooding, Byronic neighbor. More than a romance, Alexander Pushkin’s epic poem is a classic of Russian literature and history, as well as a glimpse into the 19th-century dueling culture which proved to be so fatal for him.
This week I devoted an entire podcast episode to one of my favorite novels, Eugene Onegin. Though I only mentioned it in passing, I also watched Onegin, the 1999 adaptation, after reading the book.
Liv Tyler was brilliantly cast as the bookish Tatyana; this was just before she became famous for Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. Ralph Fiennes is a good 10 years older than the title character, but he does a decent job at the Byronic Onegin. Personally, I found the script to be underwhelming and disappointing – too pedestrian (and stylistically British) to really capture the essence of Pushkin’s Russia ca. 1830. It’s too bad, given the cast.
That said, I do like the script’s translation of this scene from the book. Tatyana, having professed her love in a letter, must sit through an awkward heart-to-heart from a disinterested Onegin. While Tchaikovsky’s opera infuses this scene with soaring melodies – leading you to think Onegin likes her after all – Fiennes’s cool, polite delivery seems more realistic and makes Tatyana’s nervousness all the more real.
This is the same scene in the opera, in case you didn’t get enough (and because I love it so much). Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is my favorite portrayal of Onegin: