John Cranko’s ballet Onegin was performed with exceptional artistry at the Royal Opera House last week. Based on Alexander Pushkin's verse-novel Eugene Onegin, Cranko’s choreography depicts a romantic tale of unfulfilled love, while Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s arrangement of various Tchaikovsky works further captivate the audience with its wondrous musicality.
Onegin introduces Lensky (Matthew Ball), a young poet engaged to Olga (Francesca Hayward), who arrives with the ballet's eponym, Eugene Onegin (Reece Clarke), from his native Saint Petersburg. Lensky introduces Eugene Onegin, who has tired of the city and has come to the countryside in search of a distraction. The first two acts illustrate the unreciprocated love of Tatiana (Natalia Osipova), Olga's hopeless romantic of a sister, who is coldly rejected by Onegin. Onegin's recklessness leads him to flirt with Olga, in turn landing him in a duel, in which he reluctantly kills her enraged fiancé. Years later, Onegin returns to St Petersburg, only to fall in love with a matured Tatiana, who cuts a decidedly more elegant figure. The performance ends with Tatiana turning down Onegin’s proposal.
Onegin. Francesca Hayward as Olga and Matthew Ball as Lensky. (c) ROH, 2020. Photographed by Tristram Kenton.
Central to Onegin is Tatiana’s dramatic transition from bookish, innocent girl to polished, graceful woman: an initial rustic setting reflects Tatiana's simplistic nature and naïveté, with Osipova capturing Tatiana’s gradual maturity through technically intricate movement and harnessing a certain sentimentality. A bedroom scene in which Tatiana fantasises about Onegin is remarkable in its subtle sensuality, and highlighted by a series of fluid turns and tireless lifts shared by Clarke and Osipova. The third act takes place in an opulent backdrop, accentuating Tatiana's changed characterisation. A final pas de deux between Tatiana and Onegin exhibits both a passionate and sorrowful energy, following her decision to sustain her marriage with Prince Gremin. Ultimately, we are left with a strikingly different impression of Tatiana, who has long since shed her pastoral origins.
Dressed in black, Reece Clarke presents Onegin as a character far removed from his surroundings, and one of apathy. Clarke’s occasionally rigid gait coupled with swift movement highlights the character's dualist nature, dominated by fearlessness and reserve. Onegin's apparent shift in his attitude towards Tatiana is emphasised in his last sequence, in which he battles with a conflicting blend of love, anger, and distress. His bitter exit in response to her rejection brings a sense of closure to both Tatiana and her empathising audience.
Onegin. Artists of The Royal Ballet. (c) ROH, 2020. Photographed by Tristram Kenton.
The gradual deterioration of Olga and Lensky's relationship is also depicted with great aesthetic detail. Their interactions in the opening scene are demonstrated through a series of soft and tender movements, though this initial fondness doesn't last long when Lensky undergoes a duel with Onegin, ending in Lensky's death. As Lensky falls lifelessly to the ground, Olga’s cry of pain as she falls with him evokes pity for the fallen relations of the once-happy couple.
The 2 ½ hour-long ballet will inevitably be appreciated by anyone who seeks to watch a performance of choreographic, visual and musical excellence. Ultimately, Onegin takes its audience through a world of innocence, love, squandered chances and change.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor