Review: Royal Ballet - Onegin - Royal Opera House

Performance: 19, 22, 23, 25, 26, 30, 31 Jan, 1 Feb 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 21 January 2013

The Royal Ballet's Jason Reilly & Alina Cojocaru in 'Onegin'. Photo Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH

Performance reviewed: 19 January

John Cranko’s Onegin is one of the finest story-telling ballets to have been made in the past half century (it just qualifies since the 50th anniversary of its creation in Stuttgart comes in 2015). Cranko began with many advantages, not least in an established narrative through Pushkin’s epic, Romantic poem (a novel in verse) from the early nineteenth century; and it has a magnificent score from Tchaikovsky but not in any way that the great composer intended. Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s arrangement of the large-scale dramatic music, distilled from diverse extracts of Tchaikovsky’s output, is itself a masterpiece. In effect, he created a fifth great Tchaikovsky ballet more than 70 years after the composer’s death.

Although Tchaikovsky died young, at 53, he lived longer than any of the other principal creators of this work: ironically, Pushkin was killed by injuries sustained in a duel, aged 38; Stolze was just 44 when he died in 1970; and Cranko was only 45 when he perished from an allergic reaction to a sleeping pill taken on a transatlantic flight. These personal tragedies of creative lives cut short add further enigma to a melancholy tale that rotates around a duel in which a man (Onegin) murders his only friend (Lensky). I say “murder” deliberately because my only criticism of the Cranko narrative is that he jettisons the presence of seconds (duels were only allowed in Pushkin’s time through very strict and formalised rules) to replace them with the two sisters (Tatiana and Olga) so as to heighten the emotional resonance. Understandable, but it makes Onegin a murderer.

The wonder of Cranko’s choreography is that every movement in this three-act ballet is imbued with meaning and while it is easy to rave about the sensuality and romanticism of the two major pas de deux for Onegin and Tatiana, in which the declarations of love and rejection are reversed between the two principal protagonists, the ensemble work in each of the three acts is equally glorious. There are legions of unique choreographic images in Onegin and even the big dance numbers of the waltz, mazurka and polonaise are studded with idiosyncratic movement gems. Although not invented here, Onegin is unquestionably a jewel in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Dominic Grier, gave an impressive account of a score that soars between dramatic power and eloquent moments of touching intimacy.

Despite the orchestral achievement and the world-class choreography, I must confess to feeling that this opening performance of the new run of Onegin was not the success that it could have been. It started badly – before even the curtain raised – with an injury that deprived the intended cast of Johan Kobborg (a superb interpreter of the title role). His replacement could hardly have been more experienced since Jason Reilly has been with the Stuttgart Ballet since 1997 and has thus been thoroughly immersed in Cranko’s choreography throughout his career. Reilly’s strong reading of Eugene Onegin is as a loathsome man without redemption: a bored and boring fop consumed by arrogance and cynicism. Against him, Alina Cojocaru’s shy and bookish Tatiana is a perfect contrast. For both of these artists, here is a signature role, superbly delivered; but just not together. It’s unfair to dwell on this since they had little time to prepare for their partnership but the coruscating emotions that should flow from the drama of their pas de deux were missing that all-important extra lift.

All ballet dancers of this seniority are consummate professionals and they deal with the cards that are dealt them but, since her life-partner Kobborg is unlikely to dance the role of Onegin again, one cannot help feel that a small part of Cojocaru must have remained off-stage with him. She has had her own problems with career-threatening injury and it is very sad that – with Kobborg now aged 40 – fate should intervene once again by thwarting what would have been a mutual goodbye from one of the most exquisite dance partnerships to one of their most exceptional performances (and there have been a lot to choose from). Since there appears to be little chance of his recovery in time to perform in this run, I hope that another chance arrives for them to be Onegin and Tatiana somewhere, anywhere, before it is too late.

Steven McRae and Akane Takada performed as the young lovers, Lensky and Olga. Both danced individually with purpose and meaning; and Lensky’s soliloquy immediately before his fatal duel with Onegin was danced with a moving tenderness by McRae that was both emotionally and technically superb. But, when they danced together, the early passion of young love was surprisingly subdued. In fact, the duet that conveyed by far the most meaning to me was the one danced by Tatiana with her husband, Prince Gremin (nobly played by Bennet Gartside). Here was an expression of mature love settled into a lifelong companionship, glowingly portrayed by Cojocaru and Gartside and, for once, this was the set piece pas de deux to savour in a night that fell slightly short of expectations.

Performances continue on 22, 23, 25, 26, 30, 31 Jan, 1 Feb 2013

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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