His eyes wide shut

     Imagine yourself a young man of 18. Not even quite 18 yet, so appropriately excited. You have travelled around Europe and arrived back from Gottingen inspired. You are a worshipper of Kant, you are a poet of great sentimentality and every bit of a Romantic ideal. Your tongue is enthusiastic, your mind is full of idle liberal ideas, your cheeks are rosy and your dark curls are long. Your name is Vladimir Lensky and you find yourself in an empty family manor in the middle of Russian nowhere.

Onegin and Lensky at the Larins

Onegin and Lensky at the Larins

     Now, to someone like myself that would be the beginning of a deep and long relationship with depression. But, surprisingly, not for Vladimir. Not only is he unaffected by the boring predictability of a remote Russian province, he thrives there and his cheeks never lose their colour. There are a few reasons for that.

     First and foremost, as a true poet, he is deeply in love with the one and only – his childhood sweetheart (in the words of Bridget Jones, they have been running around the same swimming pool). This love is painting the world around him in fluorescent colours evasively protecting him from reality.

     Second, he meets a new neighbour. Only a few years older, but so much more, so to say, tired of life, that he must be wiser. They are like “earth and water, prose and verse, ice and flame” but they share education, interest in books and mutual disappointments: one – his lovesickness, another – his sickness of pretty much everything else. They drink together most evenings, discussing deep philosophical matters. Within months one will kill another.

Onegin and Lensky by L. Timoshenko

‘Onegin and Lensky’ by  Timoshenko

     But beyond his love for Olga and his friendship with Onegin, there is still one more reason why Lensky is perfectly content to combine his limited existence with his unlimited ideals. What if for just a moment we could imagine that the duel had not happened? That Onegin (Vladimir wouldn’t have, he is a poet after all) had come back to his senses and refused to fight. He’d shaken Lensky’s hand, had swiftly departed from the unfortunate birthday party and sent a note to his friend in the morning suggesting some shooting together in his woods to seal the peace treaty. What would have happened to Lensky if he had a chance to grow up properly?

     My name isn’t Cassandra, but I will tell you. To the great delight of madam Larina, our Vladimir would marry Olga, who would get bored of him within a few months and would start flirting away at every opportunity. At first her husband would get a bit of passion going, but then would get comfortable and decide that the trouble is not worth the hassle. He would, no doubt, become a good master of his land and people, applying his old German education trying to improve his peasants’ lives. But German principals do not take well to the Russian soil, and Lensky’s idealistic setups would fall through one after another. He would still read, but less and less of Kant and more and more of “Horse and Hound”. He would still dream but less and less of undying love, and more and more about tomorrow’s dinner. Because our Lensky is only a little local gentleman, slightly poisoned with western Romantic ideas, but longing really for a nice wife and a few little rosy-cheeked kids. And let’s face it: as a poet, he is pretty mediocre.

The Death of Lensky by Timoshenko

‘The Death of Lensky’ by Timoshenko

     What makes him the Lensky we love is the duel. Untimely death for no reason but the arrogance of youth that knows not that death is real.

For there, where the days are short and overcast,
Lives a race of people for whom death is no pain.

Love never consummated. Kisses never received or given. Romantic ideals never pursued and never betrayed. It was not his choice, it would not be his choice, but caught a victim of his own romanticism, Lensky dies with his eyes wide-shut to the realities of the world. And with surprise and disbelief he bids farewell to his youth and to his life: “Kuda, kuda, kuda vy udalilis’…” – where are you gone, oh days of my golden spring?


P.S. Look through our opera files to find transliteration and audio reading for Lensky’s aria.


Tchaikovsky “Eugene Onegin”

A madonna for no man’s taking

Brjullov ‘Rider’

It was the production of Eugene Onegin by ENO in 2011 that brought me to a curious realisation that a Russian heroine performed by a non-Russian actress/singer often appears nothing short of hysterical. I fully understand the desire of any performer to reveal what is often called “the Russian passion”, but without deep understanding of where this passion comes from, the effort remains superficial and therefore futile.

There is a lot to be said about the role of a woman in Russian cultural context. Hardly anything can be compared to the strength, resilience and ability for self-sacrifice of a Russian heroine. Historically and culturally women have always been the spiritual spine of the Russian nation and ensured its survival.

It is not surprising, therefore, that an image of an ultimate Russian heroine has traveled across Russian literature, art and music and gained an extraordinary power over the hearts and minds all over the world. From Dostoevsky’s Nastasia Philipovna to Pushkin’s Tatiana, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Ljubasha to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, from Shostakovich’s Katerina to Bulgakov’s Margarita, she changes epochs and attires but remains unchanged in the core. So what makes her so special and enigmatic, easily recognisable from piece to piece, from author to author?

The strength

Kramskoy 'Portrait of a Woman'

Kramskoy ‘Portrait of a Woman’

Nikolaj Nekrasov summarised it in a few lines of his poem “Father Frost” (1863):

At play a horseman will not catch her,

In need she will save the whole world,

She will stop a stallion in a mad run,

She will walk into a burning house…

The sources of her strength and resilience seems to be hidden in nature itself. She is a true daughter of the earth on which she stands, she is one of the elements herself – unstoppable and overwhelming as the elements tend to be. From Rachmaninov’s songs to Tchaikovsky’s operas, Russian music never portraits her as sentimental, but always dignified, facing a tragedy with honour and the assurance that she has to keep upright. Who else, if not her?

The longing

Tropinin 'Lacemaker'

Tropinin ‘Lacemaker’

In a sad parody to the verse above another Russian poet Naum Korzhavin wrote in 1960:

In fact she hoped for something different,

Like a white bride’s gown.

But the stallions keep running,

And the houses keep burning…

Her power is unmatchable and she probably knows it. But it doesn’t defeat her hope to allow herself once in a while to be supported, to be weak, to be cherished. She rarely shows it openly. You can sense her longing only indirectly in the occasional careless phrases, in desperate uncontainable cries or in whisper. “None, none will come!” – sings Katerina in “Lady Macbeth of Mzensk”. “Imagine, I am on my own here, nobody can understand me.” – reluctantly reveals Tatiana in her letter. “I am worn out with grief, day and night – all just about him.” – confesses Liza in “The Queen of Spades”. Mind you, most of these confessions are just soliloquies, heard by the audience but not by the heroine’s surroundings, and, consequently, they are hopelessly unsolvable.

The sacrifice

Arunov ‘Unknown woman’

It’s all or nothing for her. An object of her adoration rarely deserves her and is sure to break her heart, but this knowledge is to no avail. Pushkin genially noted: “The less we love a woman the easier we are loved by her”. Self-sacrifice is vital to her self-realisation, because despite of her strength and dignity, despite of her high abilities and remarkable beauty, she doesn’t see her existence worthy unless she is a part of a higher spiritual plan. Yet, she is no fool. If her sacrifice is unappreciated she can turn to a rage of the same power as is her devotion, as does Marfa in Khovanshcina or Ljubasha in The Tsar’s Bride. However, the final blow she will always direct at herself – not a single Russian heroine lives happily ever after.


The love

Borovikovsky 'Portrait of Lopukhina'

Borovikovsky ‘Portrait of Lopukhina’

Love is the ultimate and often the only purpose of her life and this is precisely what makes her sacrifice so easy – there is nothing beyond love anyway. Love descends upon her as a spiritual mission, as God’s will for which alone she is designed. Tatiana only sees Onegin once, Liza hardly knows Hermann, Natasha doesn’t understand and is fearful of Bolkonsky, but the depth of their feelings is full and uncompromised. Love is her only fate and the only deity she serves. It is love that gives her strength to endure any pain. It is love she is longing for. It is love that calls her to sacrifice every bit of her being. It is her fate and her purpose.


Tchaikovsky “Eugene Onegin”

Tchaikovsky “The Queen of Spades”

Mussorgsky “Khovanschina”

Rimsky-Korsakov “The Tsar’s Bride”

Prokofiev “War and Peace”

Shostakovich “Ledy Macbeth of Mzensk”