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Staatsoper: Premiere of John Cranko’s Eugene Onegin

On Saturday night, the latest dance premiere of das Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper and Volskoper was revealed – the fourth of the year. Last month at a beautiful reception after Nicht nur Mozart in the Hotel Regina, I met an engaging Englishwoman by the name of Jane Bourne who told me she was working on bringing John Cranko’s Eugene Onegin to Vienna.

Jiri Jelinek and Sue Jin Kang in Eugene Onegin
Jiri Jelinek and Sue Jin Kang
The Mirror Scene

I raised my eyebrows in dismay having seen a rather drab version of Onegin in Toronto once or twice. Another tired old ballet brought to Vienna, à la so-called premiere of Coppélia two months ago in a 1950’s Budapest staging which smelled like it had been in mothballs since the end of the Cold War. Would the tedium of this season never end?

I thought I had seen the high spot with the perfectly passable evening we’d just enjoyed.

What was the problem with Onegin? In Toronto, more than a a few things bothered me. First I was unconvinced of any intrinsic Russian authenticity.

The verse novel Eugene Onegin is a profound lament on relations and opportunity and time and love. Of course, author Aleksandr Pushkin brings a certain sense of fun to many of the scenes – like Mozart, Pushkin is able to fuse the deep and tragic with the ephemeral and the light.

Eugene Onegin tells the story of its title character a gifted and wealthy young noble who spends his golden youth in seducing all the beauties he can find. One of the victims of Onegin’s charms is Tatyana with whose sister Olga, Onegin’s best friend is to be married. Onegin breaks Tatyana’s heart through and through. Along the way he kills his best friend Lensky in a pointless duel when Onegin tries to seduce Olga. Many years later in Petersburg, the dissipit Onegin runs into Tatyana, who has married Prince Grimin, a minister in the Tsar’s government. Now it is his turn to fall in love and be turned away.

Not a very funny story, on the whole.

In Toronto, one felt only the superficial and the light. Far too much clowning, a frequent problem in Toronto and indeed the other classical companies in North America. To reach their audience they often shortsell the gravity of their work. Onegin was just such a case.

In Toronto, I saw Onegin with Rex Harrington in the lead role. While Mr Harrington is a strong principal dancer and a capable partner and a good-looking man – he is a little bit lost in the ballets which require a deep romantic involvement with the ballerina, like Romeo & Juliet. Eugene Onegin is just such a ballet. Onegin must be totally involved in the first seduction.

The disdain in Act II can be off-hand, but by the end he must be a broken man at the edge of despair for having discarded the woman he loved for the life of the roué before discovering it is too late for him. En route Onegin kills his best friend so he isn’t even left with an entourage.

When the victim of his youthful seduction, sends Onegin – now in middle-age – away there is nowhere for him to go but down. Tatyana is the last bark in the ocean of his life.

In Act One, there are several traditional Russian folk dances given a slightly classical reworking. Russian folk dance is far away from the classical repertoire. It requires deep knee bends from the men and a freedom and energy of movement that is rarely found in classically trained dancers in the West. Folk dance is actually taught in the dance academies of Russia – one of the great folk dancing companies in the world was created by ex-Bolshoi soloist Igor Moiseev.

So the Russians and their neighbours in the Ukraine and Byelorussia know how to do these dances.

It turns out that more than half of the corps-de-ballet onstage at the premiere of Eugene Onegin was made up of Natashas and Alyonas and Ninas and Lizas and Alexeis and Dimas and Igors and Aleksandrs.

And it helps. The corps-de-ballet looked the part, whether as Russian peasants on a summer romp or as Petersburg nobility. What I hadn’t noticed before tonight was what a photogenic group the Staatsoper company is. There are many, many faces striking and beautiful both among the men and the women. (Enough so that Vienna stylist Boris Cavlina was able to do a convincing Onegin modern fashion shoot with four members of the company for the latest edition of dancers magazine.)

The glamorous ballroom scenes take on a whole other allure when the participants look like they were carefully cast for a film – for authenticity and beauty – rather than the hodgepodge of dance schools and types you get in any North American company. Happily, the artists of Das Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper and Volksoper like many of the Eastern companies are not as thin as those in Toronto and most of the North American companies where most of the women look gravely starved. Here they are thin but don’t look like they are at death’s door.

A 19th century party scene is much gayer with participants who actually look like they occasionally get at least half a meal if not a full one. I fail and have always failed to see the beauty in starvation and emaciation.

The corps-de-ballet did an outstanding job as a group with the steps and remaining in the show. They were always there and strong in their supporting roles, without drawing attention away from the principals. The atmosphere of old Petersburg was never far away.

To my shock and to their shame, the ballet direction only mentions the corps-de-ballet collectively in the program. Frankly, considering the exceptional work the corps-de-ballet did and their importance to this work, the lack of credit is a crying shame and I hope that it will be rectified in the future. The participating dancers should be listed as a group but by name.

The two principals – Onegin and Tatyana – came in from the Stuttgart Ballet, where Cranko first created Eugenee Onegin in 1965.

Czech dancer Jiri Jelinek did a fine job as the insouciant young Onegin blithely seducing Tatyana and ripping up her letters. I felt that he was not as strong as the finally self-aware older Onegin. Onegin finally sees his life for the tatters that is with the passing of ten years in the life of a wastrel. Jelinek did not have anything like the gravitus that leaps out of the photographs of the original Onegin from 1965 Ray Barra.

Korean dancer Sue Jin Kang on the other hand to my mind failed as Tanya the debutante but exceled later as the mature Tatyana. In the beginning of the ballet, Sue Jin Kang did not do much to set hearts aflutter – where Onegin should be struck by her winsome grace and youthful beauty. While her steps were fine, Sue Jin Kang was just a little bit too staid.

In Act II where Onegin and Tatyana meet at a Petersburg ball and Onegin tears up Tatyana’s letter to him in front of her eyes, Sue Jin Kang again went through the motions of lovesick madness well enough – it’s a scene which reminds the viewer of Giselle’s dance of death in front of the Royal party at the end of Act I of Giselle – as she flees the ballroom. But we were not made heartsick.

Cranko-Onegin-Ball-Prince-Gremin-Grascher
Sue Jin Kang as Tatyana
Wolfgang Grascher as Prince Gremin

In Act III as the wife of Prince Gremin, Sue Jin Kang’s dramatic facilities came into their own. Her attempt to keep Grimin with her, the day she expects Onegin to call is very touching. The agony of her soul and body torn between her youthful love – the one true love – and her duty as the wife of Prince Grimin – and finally her own dignity as a person – this we felt with every step.

She is truly frightening when she finally lifts her arm and points to the door and drives Onegin, hopeless from the room.

Alas, as I noted earlier Jelinek is not at his best as the older broken Onegin – maybe in a few short years (balletic life is every so short) when he is holding onto Onegin as one of his last principal roles at the Stuttgart Ballet, he will be ready to interpret the regrets of the old roué playing his final unsuccessful card.

Jelinek should be dancing in this final scene as if his whole life depends on it. He doesn’t.

Curiously while in the original novel in verse, Tatyana sends Onegin away without giving into his blandishments, Mr. Cranko’s choreography is so explicit that it looks for all the world, like Tatyana and Onegin consummate a final tryst before she sends him packing.

Between the two of them Jelinek and Sue Jin Kang do an admirable job of carrying the ballet. Looking at the photos of Marcia Haydée and Ray Barra, they are following in an intimidating tradition here. Something like when the Bolshoi dances Spartacus now. No one has ever been able to replace Marius Liepa in Spartacus.

The dance high point of Eugene Onegin comes early in the second act when Tatyana is in her bedroom supposed to be asleep. Instead she goes to a mirror where she sees herself with Onegin. Jelinek comes out of the mirror and dances a fantastic pas-de-deux with Sue Jin Kang which includes a serious of running jétés where Sue Jin Kang literally flies over Jelinek’s shoulder again and again. Breathtaking choreography, in what are generally staid enough steps.

One wishes that Cranko has writ his choreography large like that more often.

As for instance in the wretched duel scene between Lensky and Onegin.

In the first ballroom scene, after returning Tatyana’s letter Onegin decides it would be fun to seduce her sister Olga, fiancé of his friend Lensky. Lensky puts up with this for awhile, but as Onegin succeeds in sweeping away Olga and pushes his friend too far, it ends in a challenge. Eno Peci is very convincing in his slow boil to jealousy. One genuinely feels his shocked incomprehension at the dual betrayal from his friend Onegin and his beloved Olga.

Cranko's Onegin: Olga - Maria Yakovleva, Lensky - Eno Peci
Olga – Maria Yakovleva
Lensky – Eno Peci

Olga’s flighty flirtatiousness was totally credible in the charming performance of Maria Yakoveleva as Olga. She had just the right mix of gamine, insouciance and regret. Indeed, Miss Yakovleva risked stealing the ballet from Sue Jin Kang at points. Apparently Miss Yakoveleva is a newcomer to the Staatsoper. We can expect good things from her in the future.

So far so good.

The duel scene begins with Lensky on a darkened stage enveloped in a convincing fog. Very atmospheric. Alas soon he is strutting pointlessly about an empty woods before Tatyana and Olga rush in and half heartedly throw themselves around his legs to prevent him from carrying out the duel with Onegin (who does try to make amends to his friend before shooting finally shooting him). Totally unconvincing choreography. Two women present at the site of a duel would be a great deal more successful in preventing it if they went as far as to try. The silhouette view of Lensky and Onegin at one metre from one another shooting one another in the head (you can’t miss at that distance) as the women cry and gasp in the foreground was stagy and comic. The absolute nadir of what was otherwise a fabulous evening.

Somebody has to restage this section of the ballet as it just doesn’t work.

The ballet orchestra at the Staatsoper is so wonderful that we could have come to a closed curtain and it would have been a wonderful concert. What carries the whole ballet is the wonderful Tschaikovsky score. The score is actually fragments from various Tschaikovsky compositions – for me they fall together very well and I actually prefer the more orchestral and complex tone of Eugene Onegin to the too cloying Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty ballet scores. Swan Lake is of course stunning musically but its effect on dancers and critics has worn down on account its ubiquity. Eugene Onegin is fresh and vigorous and rich musically.

Conductor Vello Pähn pushed hard for a vigorous interpretation of Kurt-Heinze Stolze’s arrangement. Unlike the flat and dampened sound of the wretched O’Keefe Center of Toronto, the acoustics of Staatsoper are incredible. Incidentally the acoustics are much better in the Directors Central Lodge than parterre – a discovery for me as normally I prefer to sit parterre and was seated in the central lodge as a curious accident.

The decorations are very brown and grey. Much criticised at the pauses for being dated by the Austrian critics, personally I found they suited the Staatsoper and the production to a tee – in fact were quite timeless. I have lived in both old Moscow and old Petersburg and I found the Russian atmosphere convincing enough. In the cold grey concrete of Toronto’s O’Keefe Center it was much more difficult to be transported away to 1828 Russia – when we arrive in the Staatsoper (built 1869 and carefully kept in something close to its original state), we are already halfway there before the curtain is even opened.

Jiri Jelinek and Sue Jin Kang   Birthday Party
Onegin behind his strange brooding table
Jiri Jelinek and Sue Jin Kang

At the start of the party scene Onegin begins sitting behind a table alone. Apparently he is playing solitaire. It looks more like he plans to spend the evening taking notes while the others enjoy dancing – we’ve just seen what looks like the same table as Tatyana’s writing table in her boudoir.

I would get rid of that table and have Onegin circulate with the guests.

While the principals were visitors, I don’t feel the success of the evening depended on them. Rather they were participants in a brilliant evening from the whole corps-de-ballet with admirable work from Maria Yakovleva as Olga, Eno Peci as Lensky and Dagmar Kronberger as Madame Larina, the mother of Tatyana and Olga.

Miss Kronberger is a prominent soloist known for her long limbs and a certain lurid abandon in dance and life. This is the first season for her to be taking on the roles of mother and queen. Tall and stately of person, Miss Kronberger is exactly right in these roles now and adds a great deal of energy and focus to any scene in which she participates.

It is just this kind of interpretation in the secondary roles – Mr Peci, Miss Yakovleva and Miss Kronberger – which elevates a story ballet from the ordinary into a magical evening.

And that is what we enjoyed on Saturday night. If you care at all for ballet, the Staatsoper is a wonderful place to be when they play Eugene Onegin. It is an evening of pure pleasure.

Kudos to Jane Bourne for the work she did bringing the company to John Cranko’s choreography and to attention to dramatic detail. Credit to Ballet Artistic Director Gyula Harangozó for the choice of such an appropriate piece for the company.* Eugene Onegin is a great step in the right direction for the Staatsoper ballet company.

Since the modern choreographers have abandoned movement for conceptual dance (i.e. standing around in the dark) – the ballet has become much more important in this city as the last refuge of those who would see dance. A poor ballet company under these circumstances would only be succour to those who convinced that dance as movement is a notion as anachronistic as the horse drawn carriages that fill Vienna streets.

Given the progression since the catastrophic Tschaikowski Impressionen, the tired Coppèlia, the quite good Nicht nur Mozart to the excellent Eugene Onegin, I am finally optimistic about the ballet in Vienna.

Wonderful.

*Coppélia would be the right piece too, but in a far more challenging and innovative and modern production.

All photos by Axel Zeininger and Copyright Axel Zeininger/Das Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper und Volksoper

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