A story of passion, bloodshed, desire and death…everything, in fact, that makes life worth living. — Irma la Douce, the musical
Presenting a company premiere of any ballet has its risks — even with material that has been successful for other companies. Does the new ballet work for this company’s audience? Does the choreography tell the story without too much need for cumbersome program notes. And for older ballets, does the work still retain an essence of freshness? For San Francisco Ballet’s new production of John Cranko’s Onegin, the answer to all questions is a resounding YES!
From the luscious Santo Loquasto sets and costumes, to the Tchaikovsky musical pastiche, and the brilliant dancing by the principals and the corps — it works. There is no question about it, no waiting to see how it all gels. San Francisco Ballet has a definite hit on its hands.
Based on the poetic novel Eugene Onegin by Russian literary icon Alexander Pushkin, the ballet is a linear account of the venerated Russian classic. The story is basic: naïve country girl (Tatiana) falls in love with a bored city slicker of questionable worth (Onegin). He is introduced to her by his friend (Lensky), fiancé of the girl’s sister (Olga). Onegin not only rejects Tatiana, he decides to cause a bit of trouble between Olga, who is a bit of a flirt, and his friend Lensky. He succeeds, and Lensky challenges him to a duel, wherein Onegin kills Lensky. Onegin, as you might surmise, is no longer a welcome guest at Tatiana’s house.
Onegin leaves the countryside and does an extended walkabout. Tatiana eventually marries an older man, Gremin, and seems to be pretty happy with her marriage and her life. Onegin returns years later and sees how well she turned out. He pursues her. Tatiana still has feelings for him, but stays true to her husband and sends Onegin on his way. (Personally, I think she finds the reformed Bad Boy boring so gives him the boot.)
On opening night, the dancing was glorious, the entire company handling Cranko’s technically demanding choreography with attack and precision. The strength of any ballet company lies not in its principal dancers and soloists, but in its corps. And here SF Ballet has it nailed. They were simply amazing. And Cranko’s choreography gives them plenty of room to shine. One astonishing moment came when the corps couples move from diagonal to diagonal in a breathtaking series of supported jetés performed in unison at almost unbelievable speed. And yet, they still managed to be real people. Neat.
Arguably as gifted as Balanchine at moving groups, Cranko manages to make the synchronizations more human, less robotic than the Balanchine formations. In the story ballets, especially, Cranko eschews the obvious linear and horseshoe corps formations for more natural groupings — some all to the left, with a straggler or two on the right, seemingly haphazard, the way a real-life party evolves. The principal action may be centered; maybe it’s not. And he uses the corp members as opera composers use comprimario roles — to further the dramatic line. These are little soloist roles, and the SF Ballet corp members rock each and every one.
In fact, all the dancers are fully invested in the dramatic arc. Notably, Maria Kochetkova takes the audience through Tatiana’s development from romantic country girl to sophisticated woman. It is a series of small moments; for example, in the duel scene, when Tatiana comes to realize that Onegin is a bit of a putz and not a paragon of manly virtues. Kochetkova’s character transitions are not merely a factor of facial expressions, but a complete physical embodiment of shifting emotions and personal growth.
Vitor Luiz as Onegin effectively displays how bad choices can really mess things up for himself and for others, yet he manages to elicit audience sympathy for his flawed character. Even though Onegin specializes in troublemaking, Luiz gives Onegin flashes of introspection, hinting that he knows all along that he is behaving badly. Nonetheless, he cannot seem to help himself.
Gennadi Nedvigin’s Lensky goes from ardent to insanely jealous lover. The incarnation of the romantic poet, when he feels betrayed by his best friend and his fiancée, Nedvigin gives the impression that Lensky chooses death-by-duel over living with the less-than-perfect real-life situation. However, on opening night, it was Clara Blanco as Olga who definitely stole her every scene in the first two acts. Cheerful, happy, and a bit of a flirt, her world crashes as she pleads with Lensky to abort the duel. At the end, she realizes that her thoughtless actions contributed to her fiancé’s death at Onegin’s hand. (In one of those “it’s about time” moments, Ms. Blanco was promoted to soloist immediately following the performance.)
Martin West and the SF Ballet orchestra performed admirably, but they were hampered by what is the only significant flaw in Onegin. Over the years, having seen this ballet several times, from the original Stuttgart Ballet production to the National Ballet of Canada, one aspect always has bothered me — the orchestrations. Most of it is all right; it’s hard to go too wrong, given the quality of the base material, an assemblage of Tchaikovsky piano and symphonic works. However, all the pas de deux are at the same level; at no time are character pairings given music that specifically embodies the individual couples.
It would be one thing if the orchestration drawbacks were accidental, but they aren’t. “In arranging the music,” said orchestrator Kurt-Heinz Stolz, “I felt was important not to depart too much from the typical Tchaikovsky orchestration.” But what Stolz used was typical Tchaikovsky symphonic orchestration, not the composer’s ballet construction, which adjusts for character and plot nuances.
For example, in the first act, Stolz shows no musical differentiation between the Lensky/Olga and the Onegin/Tatiana duets — nothing in the music informs the audience as to the nature of the relationships. The same occurs in Act III. Tatiana’s duet with her husband Gremin carries the same soaring intensity as her final scene with Onegin. But Gremin’s love for his wife is intrinsically more tender and loving than tortured. After all, he did get the girl. Shouldn’t his music be different?
Nevertheless, the ballet works. Onegin is a fantastic evening of theater, music, and dance. If you are a ballet fan, it’s not to be missed. And for those who have never been to a ballet, this is a good one to start with. The story needs minimal explanation and is told through the acting and choreography in a way similar to a silent film.
Give it a shot.
San Francisco Ballet
Through February 3, 2012
War Memorial Opera House