Onegin, SF Ballet

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Ballet after Alexander Pushkin’s poem
Choreography by John Cranko
Music by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky, arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze
Designed by Santo Loquasto
San Francisco Ballet
March 21-March 28, 2013

The course of true love never did run smooth and, in Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” it is particularly rocky. Which makes it perfect for opera and, in the right hands, ballet. Tchaikovsky’s eponymous 1879 opera is a great stage work, perhaps the best music he ever wrote. Nearly a century later, John Cranko choreographed the tale for the company he was long associated with, Stuttgart Ballet. Rarely seen in this country, it had a sensational premiere in San Francisco last season, thanks to collaboration with The National Ballet of Canada, and has returned for an encore week in 2013.

Set to a Tchaikovsky score (but not the one you’d expect), with lavish costumes and sets by designer Santo Loquasto (of Woody Allen film fame), Cranko’s “Onegin” is a feast for the eye and the ear. Its choreography is another matter. Especially in the first act, with the exception of a Russian peasant dance for the corps, it is pedestrian and looks a bit old-fashioned. Things heat up in Act Two, especially in a duel scene between the two principal men and get really dramatic and somewhat more innovative in the final confrontation between the title character and his soon-to-be-lost love. But one couldn’t help expecting just a bit more.

To Cranko’s credit, his storytelling couldn’t be better. The plot – centering on two sets of lovers, the poet Lensky (Jaime Garcia Castilla) and the high-spirited Olga (Dores Andre), and the world-weary city dweller Onegin (Cory Stearns on loan from American Ballet Theater) and the shy, sheltered country girl Tatiana (Yuan Yuan Tan) – couldn’t be more clear.

The first act is pretty lighthearted. The two men arrive at the country home of Madame Larina (Marie-Claire D’Lyse) from the city. Lensky wants to introduce his friend to his fiancée, Madame Larina’s oldest daughter. The aforementioned happy country folk dance. Meanwhile Tatiana, Larina’s other daughter, falls instantly in love with the aloof mysterious stranger and writes him a letter to tell him so.

At a dance in celebration of Tatiana’s birthday, Onegin’s gift to the birthday girl is a cruel rebuff. Then, just to amuse himself, he begins to flirt with Olga. Lensky, the fire to Onegin’s ice, is not amused and challenges his friend to a duel. Things turn deadly serious and, to everyone’s horror, the young poet is killed. After a lengthy sojourn abroad, the remorseful Onegin returns to St. Petersburg and attends an elegant ball at the home of Prince Gremin, a dignified older man (Damian Smith). The prince has married Tatiana and she is no longer a country bumpkin but a sophisticated society lady – devoted to her husband. Onegin passionately seeks to win her back but, in spite of her continuing love for him, she hands him back the rebuff that devastated her years earlier, in the service of marital fidelity. No longer bored, Onegin collapses in despair.

All this and not one note of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score. The late Kurt-Heinz Stolze mashed up a pastiche of the Russian composer’s music – mostly little-known pieces – and, although the whole thing was played beautifully by the ballet orchestra under Charles Barker, it was a little disconcerting to experience Onegin and Tatiana’s farewell danced to “Francesca da Rimini” (although there is a certain ironic plot triangularity). The dancing, on the other hand, was right on the point.

There are alternating casts during the week-long run (including Vitor Luiz and Maria Kochetkova, seen as the leads in the video clip above), but it is hard to imagine a more magnificent Tatiana than Tan, the closest thing San Francisco has to a prima ballerina. Effectively shy and yearning in the first half, she was regal and commanding in the second. Her melting pas de deux with Gremin at the ball was a tour de force, as was her dream dance with Onegin in the “Letter Scene.” Stearns was properly cold and aloof, up until his melting point at the very end, but, I think, hampered by choreography that indicated his ennui with repeated hand-held-to-the forehead gestures. Castilla and Andre were a charming, spirited couple and his solo before the duel was outstanding.

It was, by and large, a lovely ballet experience but, between you and me, I’ll take my “Onegin” at the opera.

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