Review: Royal Ballet in Onegin at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 25 October 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 1 October 2010

Royal Ballet 'Onegin'. Alina Cojocaru & Johan Kobburg.  Photo: Dee Conway.

Reviewed: 30 September 2010

It is hard to imagine a better start to a Royal Ballet season than this scintillating, emotionally-charged rendition of Onegin -a ballet that is liberally gilded by the collective artistry of three great men. The genius begins with Pushkin’s poetic novel and its timeless story of unrequited love and continues with the rich themes of Tchaikovsky’s music; all superbly interpreted by the masterful articulacy of John Cranko’s choreography. Although Tchaikovsky’s bespoke scores for ballet are legendary, they number only three (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker) and the composition he made specifically to colour Pushkin’s verse was for the opera, Eugene Onegin. Not a single bar of that music is employed in this ballet score, although it seems as if the composer must have worked hand-in-glove with the choreographer to create such a masterpiece of integration, despite the lifetime that separated the composer’s death from Cranko’s finest hour. The credit for this goes to a fourth, lesser-known, genius: Kurt-Heinze Stolze, a musical master-tailor who skilfully crafted an effective, holistic tapestry of Tchaikovsky’s concert and operatic music to make a score that enriches Pushkin’s narrative and provides the emotional impetus for Cranko’s choreography.

These elements can only shine through the alchemy of outstanding performance and the Royal Ballet added lustre to the brilliance with a full house of excellence. Johan Kobborg brings yet more extraordinary depth to his complex characterisation of Onegin, from the uptight, superior, aristocratic house guest that we first encounter, to the world-weary, broken and haunted man he becomes. The range of emotions (shock, horror, honour, duty) shown in the space of seconds when Onegin is challenged to a duel by his friend Lensky, was an impressive capsule of Kobborg’s remarkable dramatic skill.

Alina Cojocaru was back to her very best as the tortured Tatiana, the girl at first infatuated by the handsome guest and then so emphatically rejected by him who, years later, married and with children, meets Onegin again and fights back against the demons of unrequited love to banish him from her life forever. She invests this bookish and lonely character with such intense fragility that it is impossible not to care deeply. Every ounce of her being is invested in this delicate girl and the equally vulnerable woman she becomes: both extremes of this remarkable transition from teenage innocence to mature mother are conveyed with rich textures of personality. The filigree speed and precision of her youthful solos are matched by the deep romantic sentiment in each of her three pas de deux, including a delightful duet with her husband, Prince Gremin (a suitably dignified and mature portrayal by Bennet Gartside) symbolising the secure harmony and mutual loyalty of their marriage. The two duets with Onegin – one the dream of an infatuated teenage girl, the other her tortured rejection of achieving the union of that dream – are full of powerful symbolic references that are invested with such emotional significance by the two principals that the audience is emphatically drawn into the exhilarating thrill of their heartfelt rollercoaster journey into joy and pain.

Steven McRae was an ideal first-cast choice for the earnest but fatally volatile young poet Lensky: a fine, confident virtuoso dancer, McRae also showed a depth of pathos in the foretelling tragedy of his solo prior to the duel in which he is killed by Onegin. As his fiancée, Olga (Tatiana’s sister) Akane Takada – a young dancer in the corps de ballet – made a fine, apparently nerveless debut although she is unable yet to fully convey the wilder, flirtatious nature of this more extrovert sister. There are no quibbles however about the overall excellence of this stellar cast, nor of the vitality in the tempo of the orchestra under the direction of Valeriy Ovsyanikov.

Onegin came late to the Royal Ballet – first seen in 2001, 36 years after it was made and long after its London premiere by the Festival Ballet – but it is fast becoming one of its signature works. The company has always excelled across the half century of performances executed over the past decade but it continues to surpass itself with even more exacting standards. This was a memorable evening to raise the curtain on a new season of immense promise.

*Onegin* contines 5, 6, 8, 12, 13, 20, 25 at 7.30pm & 2, 9 October at 7pm
More details/booking: www.roh.org.uk

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