Choreography by John Cranko
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

Onegin production photo

An auditorium, crammed to its lustrous and illustrious rafters, buzzing with anticipation: the Royal Ballet is opening its 2010/11 season with a popular story ballet, John Cranko's Onegin. I've never seen the place so full, or so many well-dressed people standing.

John Cranko's 1965 Onegin, here presented in the 1972 Stuttgart Ballet version, is romantic dance theatre of unrequited love and Byronic excess, which requires bravura dancing and acting. And emotive music by Tchaikovsky, of course?

It is Tchaikovsky, but it is not music from his Eugene Onegin opera. The good news is that the arrangement of Tchaikovsky's bits and pieces, mainly from The Seasons, Cherevichki, and Francesca da Rimini, by Kurt-Heinz Stolze serves well enough, which just goes to prove that Tchaikovsky wrote wonderful ballet music...

(For those of you who are interested the score is woven from The Seasons, Op. 37; Nocturne n°4, Op. 19;Three pieces for piano, Op. 9; Six Pieces for piano, Op. 19; Six Pieces for piano, Op. 51; 18 Pieces for piano, Op. 72; Cherevichki, The Caprices of Oxana (aria); Francesca Da Rimini, Op.32; and Romeo and Juliet Fantasie Overture.)

Taking Pushkin's nineteenth century verse drama, Evgeny Onegin, with its dandy anti-hero Onegin, the superfluous man who tramples everything in his path with arrogant indifference and a poseur's ennui, the sweet-natured innocent provincial Tatiana, and the young lovers Lensky and Olga whose happiness Onegin destroys like some malevolent Mephistopheles for a bit of sport, Cranko cuts to the quick with deftness and ironic symmetry.

In three acts, two scenes each - one a crowd scene, the other private - the narrative is laid out simply and the drama takes its predictable course. Killing time, Onegin kills his best friend, the poet Lensky, and destroys three people who have done him no harm. Romantic notions collide with real life, and are found wanting.

The sets range from a country estate and ball (lots of browns), to a dark desolate spot for the duel, to a grand St. Petersburg ball (red plush), and Tatiana's bedrooms, first at home as a girl with head full of sentimental romantic nonsense from reading too much, then the boudoir of her marital home, where she rejects Onegin in the same cruel way he rejected her love - by tearing up his letter. What that costs her is evident in Tatiana's silent scream as the curtain comes down.

Onegin's raison d'être is its dazzling solos and duets for its main four protagonists. Charming polonaise and mazurka dances for the company fill the stage in the ball and the country scenes, and break the tension, but it is the duets and solos which give the ballet its depth of feeling and characterisation.

Cranko's character interpretation through gesture, choreography, and music, is exact and exquisite. The cast is superb, and the dancing defies gravity. Tatiana is literally swept off her feet by Onegin in ecstatic pas de deux.

Passionate dancing, fine acting and perfect partnering from Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in the lead roles, and Steven McRae and Akane Takada in the secondary lyrical roles makes this a must see production.

Cojocaru and Kobborg, both fine actors, dance as if their lives depend on it, Kobborg a little over-melodramatic, but haughty Onegin can take as much over-acting as he likes.

The surprise is Akane Takada, still only nineteen, promoted to First Artist this season. Cast as Olga, Lensky's fiancée and Tatiana's flightier sister, she may not have the experience of building character yet, but her dancing is pert, precise, and confident. She doesn't put a foot wrong. It'll be interesting seeing her develop.

McRae is growing in stature and presence every time I see him. A marvellous Lensky, he gives Kobborg's Onegin a run for his money. His pre-duel solo is devastatingly sad, conveying so much with such economy.

The figure in the background, Bennet Gartside, who from a distance has an uncanny resemblance to Putin, is dignified as Prince Gremin, Tatiana's more mature husband in the final act. Their duet, he protective and solid, contrasts sharply with her pas de deux with the spectre of Onegin in full blown black chiffon sleeves who sweeps out of her bedroom mirror in her girlish imaginings in act one.

'I always want people to enjoy themselves', Cranko once said. And they did on this first night. Moved by the dancers they too were carried away by a 'Childe Harold' who gets his comeuppance, and, above all, by the shy girl who becomes a strong honourable woman. What Onegin let slip through his fastidious fingers he realises too late - as is the way of life Pushkin fell in the same way as Lensky in 1837.

In rep till 25th October 2010

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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