Review: Royal Ballet - Onegin - Royal Opera House

Performance: 24 January - 27 February 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 26 January 2015

The Royal Ballet's 'Onegin' - Marianela Nuñez as Tatiana, Thiago Soares as Onegin ©ROH 2015. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Performance reviewed: 24 January

Alexander Pushkin’s weighty verse novel, Eugene Onegin, is a fundamental cornerstone of Russian literature. When Tchaikovsky created an opera from Pushkin’s narrative, it was widely regarded to be inappropriate and the same sentiment carried over the years to be applied by purists to John Cranko’s ballet, made in 1965 for his Stuttgart Company. It is the same argument that appears whenever a great book is interpreted in some other medium, usually whenever the action moves from page to screen (think of the angst created amongst fans of Tolkien by Peter Jackson’s long-running film series inspired by The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit).

For those unfamiliar with the story of Onegin here it is in a peanut-sized shell that will have Pushkin purists beating their chests with irritation: Lensky – a romantic poet – is betrothed to Olga and, visiting her house for a party, he introduces his more worldly-wise friend, Onegin, to her sister, Tatiana. She falls for him but when Onegin receives a letter declaring her love (which she writes after Onegin comes to her a dream sequence) he humiliates Tatiana by tearing it up during the party and then flirting outrageously with Olga. In a fit of jealous rage, Lensky challenges him to a duel, which Onegin initially refuses to accept but then – bound by the code of honour – does so, killing Lensky in the subsequent shoot-out. Years later, Onegin visits the house of Prince Gremin – who has married Tatiana – and realising that he loves her, attempts to win her back. After wrestling between her conscience and emotions Tatiana tears up his love letter and sends him packing.

It is impossible to recreate the rich complexity of a great novel or play in a paragraph, let alone a wordless ballet, but Cranko’s work proves that it is possible to create a great ballet from a literary source. His Onegin is superbly crafted, glorious story-telling. The simple theme of unrequited love with role reversal turning on the tragedy of Lensky’s death is fluently articulated in Cranko’s unique choreographic language, flush with the eloquence and clarity of gesture and emotion.

Onegin has a tight structure, without waste or padding, in which every moment has a meaning. I saw it recently, performed in Antwerp, by the Royal Ballet Flanders, and Cranko’s ballet is now in repertories of companies around the world but it is always carefully unpacked and coached to the same exacting standards so that the product retains its potent emotional power. Onegin only came to the Royal Ballet earlier this century (perhaps the greatest legacy of the late Ross Stretton’s otherwise short-lived tenancy as director) but it is already a huge favourite with the Covent Garden audience: a joy to watch and – judging from this opening night of a new run – a joy to perform.

A major contribution to the long-running success of Onegin lies in the superb designs of Jürgen Rose both in evocative period costumes and in the prolific use of curtains and drapes to enclose the stage with hints of the opulence of Imperial Russia; and in Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s lesser known music to create a lush, melodic score that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with ballet’s greatest music. It is worth emphasising that not a single bar from Eugene Onegin has been re-used in the ballet. Whether you credit Tchaikovsky or Stolze – and I think you have to credit both – it is a masterpiece of melody and thematic continuity and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (conducted by Dominic Grier) played it with great sensitivity and dramatic impact.

Some of the greatest choreographers struggle to make memorable pas de deux but Cranko was an absolute master of the love duet. His handling of the complex narrative is built upon five significant pas de deux, each expressing a very different form of love. Mostly people will remember the power duets for Onegin and Tatiana, which close the opening and final acts: one in which Tatiana dreams of Onegin stepping through her mirror; and the other in which the settled, married Tatiana rises above the romantic imperative to reject the man she once loved with all her heart. But, although the last of these – in particular – was as powerfully performed on this evening as I have ever seen, it was the other three duets that had an equal resonance: the opening pas de deux between Lensky and Olga; the initial encounter between Onegin and Tatiana; and the 3rd Act dance of Gremin and Tatiana. The choreography in these duets speaks with such eloquence about the state of each relationship at that moment and rarely have I seen each performed with such clarity and power.

The bond between real-life partners, Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares, translates into an ardent performance of heartrending sentimentality. At the curtain call, Nuñez remained in the distressed, tender, tear-jerking character of Tatiana. Everything was left on the stage, leaving the dancer utterly drained by the end. Nuñez dances with exquisite attention to the accuracy of detail but here that served only as the bedrock for a performance of fervent dramatic intensity. Soares’ performance in the title role was also enriched by being absolutely in character through every look and gesture. His aging in the passing of the years between acts 2 and 3 took on far more than a greying wig. There was a moment where Onegin sits down in the Gremin ballroom in which Soares personified the tiredness of a bored old man. This was a tour de force in danced drama by both the leads.

And the excellence continued throughout the cast. Vadim Muntagirov was outstanding as Lensky, notably in the two major solos – one introducing the character early in Act 1 and the other as he is about to die at dawn – danced with great sensitivity, empathy and lyricism. Although taller than most, he is a perfect choice for the expressive, stretching choreography of the role. Olga was also portrayed with an effortless appropriateness by Akane Takada.
Ryoichi Hirano brought an upright gravitas to the important role of Prince Gremin; Kristen McNally a neat touch of humour as the Nurse; and Genesia Rosato exemplified the cares and worries of the girls’ mother, Madame Larina (one should note that she has been performing the role since those very first performances back in 2001/2).

But, these named roles only shine because they are set within an ensemble that adds rich detail to every one of the many country serfs and St Petersburg nobility. I praise them all by singling out Michael Stojko, a long-serving first artist who always reminds me – from the shoulders up, at any rate – of Kevin Spacey and who caught my eye, playing an officer at the house parties. Cranko’s story-telling comes to life through a rich tapestry of many such inter-linked performances and the artists of the Royal Ballet, at every level, make this happen.

Onegin is one of those productions that presents the Royal Ballet in its finest light (another – La Fille mal gardée – is coming soon). These are the very best ballets with which to open your eyes to the art form. Give yourself a treat or, if you are already hooked, pass the magic baton on.

Continues in rep until 27 February. Dates & details:

Photos: Tristram Kenton. ©ROH 2015

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for Dancing Times, Dance Europe, Shinshokan Dance Magazine in Japan,, and other magazines and websites in Europe and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK. Find him on Twitter @GWDanceWriter

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