Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Onegin with the Wiener Staatsballett

Credit: Wiener Staatsoper

On a short break where I spent most of my time tearfully fawning over various classical giants (I like to think that the tears were a by-product of the amount of champagne I consumed daily, but I might just be that uselessly maudlin), I don’t think I would have been able to forgive myself if I went all the way to Vienna without spending at least a few hours rhapsodising at the Wiener Staatsoper. I resolutely refused to see the production of Werther with a baritone Werther (seriously, stop that right now), so my rapturously blonde Viennese friend booked tickets to the ballet and off we went in search of the proud Onegin.

I have seen Cranko’s ballet a worrisome amount of times in London, all with exemplary casts who are amongst the best in the world. Thiago Soares remains the finest Onegin I have encountered and Natalia Osipova’s role debut two years ago as Tatiana was enough to leave goosepimples for a week. I know each solo variation and anguished step of every pas de deux so well that I was probably amongst the toughest critics in the house.

When Cranko’s balletic interpretation of Onegin was finally staged in Russia in 2013, nearly fifty years after its creation, it was met with a general sense of indulgent amusement. Pushkin’s poetic epic is engrained into the national subconscious in ways that we can’t even begin to fathom; Tatiana is a national icon of strength and every Russian schoolchild knows a few stanzas by heart. Cranko, a South African upstart, took liberties with the plot and characterisation and the rather piecemeal Tchaikovsky score inspired mirth in some quarters. Yet, the novel remains at the ballet’s core and every interpreter, regardless of balletic or operatic manifestation, should endeavour to remember Pushkin’s core lessons.

This was not entirely prudently done by the Staatsballett. Here are a few key examples.

First, in Tatiana and Onegin’s first pas de deux in the garden, Onegin should lift Tatiana up in a stationary lift, place her gently down and then look away. It signals his engrained society mannerisms against his underlying indifference, the stark contrast to Lensky’s country exuberance mere minutes ago. The timing of the turn of the head should convey not callousness but danger. Our Onegin on the night (Roman Lazik) turned before Tatiana had touched the ground.

Second, Pushkin’s Lensky is no hot-headed fool. Pushkin writes him as a scholar of German Idealism – not quite Kantian, his heroes are Goethe and Schiller. He pursues his Romantic Ideals not thoughtlessly, but with the joy and languor of youth with purpose and vision. This ardency was absent from Davide Dato’s interpretation of the doomed poet – Dato appeared onstage with such bounding, compact energy, he seemed focussed on technical prowess than gentility. Under his awkward stewardship, Lensky became a caricature of the youth who died for Romanticism – he was sulky, small-minded and impetuous, hardly a foil to Onegin’s Byronic self. When he was felled during the duel, it was with an exasperating sense of happenstence, rather than a boyish defence of the ideals on which he has crafted his entire existence.

Thirdly, the entire core of the story’s conclusion was lost in one single moment, even before the final meeting between our two leads. The curtain rises on Act Three several years after the duel and away from small country society. We are in St Petersburg, amongst grand dames and Princes. In comes Onegin, eyed with scepticism by his peers. His years of travel, a self-imposed exile, have changed him from the easy-going young dandy whose company they once enjoyed. Then enters Tatiana and Prince Gremin, her elderly husband. They dance the gentlest pas de deux, yearning but tempered. Onegin is shaken badly:

``Can it be she?'' Eugene in wonder
     demanded. ``Yes, she looks... And yet...
     from deepest backwood, furthest under...''
     And every minute his lorgnette
     stays fixed and focused on a vision
     which has recalled, without precision,
     forgotten features. ``Can you say,
     prince, who in that dark-red bĂ©ret,
     just there, is talking to the Spanish
     ambassador?'' In some surprise
     the prince looks at him, and replies:
     ``Wait, I'll present you -- but you banish
     yourself too long from social life.''
     ``But tell me who she is.'' ``My wife.''
     ``You're married? No idea whatever...
     Since when is this?'' ``Two years or more.''
     ``To...?'' ``Larina.'' ``Tatyana? never!''
     ``She knows you?'' ``Why, we lived next door.''
     So to his wife for presentation
     the prince bring up his own relation
     and friend Evgeny. The princess
     gazes at him... and nonetheless,
     however much her soul has faltered,
     however strongly she has been
     moved and surprised, she stays serene,
     and nothing in her look is altered:
     her manner is no less contained;
     her bow, as calm and as restrained.

It follows that the whole story is crippled and loses its force if Tatiana run offstage in tears upon meeting her former idol. This profligacy is not Cranko’s, but the dancer’s. Perhaps nothing I see this year will irritate me this much. The reason Tatiana is a Russian icon is for her resilience and strength, for her knowledge of oneself. This single act of fleeing unnerves because it renders the sacrifice she makes completely redundant – Pushkin’s Tatiana ultimately spurns Onegin not so much for society, but also for herself.


These are, of course, the gripes of someone who has spent too many hours with Pushkin. There was much to admire in the dancing, regardless of such inconsistencies. Yakovleva’s acting as Tatiana was crystalline and projected well throughout – in particular, her Act Two ball variation was wonderfully executed, those great leaps containing all the desperation of a spurned young girl. The nuances she noted with the final pas de deux were superb; for instance, when she lands flat footed from his lifts, it is clear that, in her heart, she has already rejected him. Tcacencoa’s Gremin showed some very able partnering in the Act Three pas de deux, which he paced regally; I would go as far to say that it was the most enjoyable part of the evening Yet, I question the choice of Onegin – Lazik is both physically and emotionally too slight for the role. He struggled immensely with the famous ‘bum lifts’ in the mirror pas de deux and he has none of Onegin’s manifest cruelty. Onegin is not malicious, but he is cold – but when interpreted by Lazik, it is difficult to draw a coherent narrative between the Onegin first arrived at the Larina’s estate, with the tormented suitor at the end. We finish without knowing his story – does Lazik envisage him a cad who learns how to feel too late? Or a dangerously haunted individual? What about a man of true merit that has been marred by societal temptation? The lack of narrative finesse is unfortunate.

I was however hugely impressed with the corps de ballet of the Staatsballett, who do everything with great unison, as most evident in the Act Three polonaise, which is too often scrappy and lethargic. There is a Slavic lilt to the company that manifests pleasingly across this Russian tale. An imbalanced evening it may have been, but one well worth experiencing.

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