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Das Ballett der Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera Ballet)

'Onegin'

by Stuart Sweeney

October 16, 2006 -- Vienna Opera House, Vienna, Austria

John Cranko, generally regarded as one of the leading ballet choreographers of the second half of the 20th Century, divided his career between London and Stuttgart. Yet, if you want to see his work, your best bet is to visit Continental Europe. At the time of his death, Cranko was Artistic Director of Stuttgart Ballet and there his memory is revered:  the ballet school has taken his name. His most popular ballet, “Onegin”, from the Pushkin poem, took no less than 35 years to première at the Royal Ballet and hasn’t been scheduled there since the 2004/5 season. Thus, it was a pleasant bonus to see this beautiful full-length work on a trip to Vienna.

The exterior and the front of house area of the Opera House are elaborate examples of the Eclectic Historicism that dominated Viennese architecture in the 19th Century and can be described as grand or grandiose, according to taste. However, the auditorium is in a simpler, timeless style with light colours providing an elegant setting for music and dance. Wiener Staatsoper ballet company has a 100-strong roster plus a glittering collection of guest artists.

“Onegin” is primarily a ballet of magnificent duets, describing a wide range of relationships and emotions. These involve five characters, a tactic that risks diffusion, but the clear focus of Cranko’s story-telling ensures one of those ballets that requires little help from the programme notes, unlike the narrative chaos of ballets such as “Le Corsaire”.

The first scene introduces us to the Larin family – a mother and her two daughters. Olga, the eldest, is engaged to Lenski, a poet, and their opening romantic duet in the garden is joyous and uplifting. It is only later in the scene that the two central characters, the younger sister, Tatjana, and Onegin, a handsome friend of Lenski’s, dance together for the first time, with the bored man hardly looking at the beautiful young woman who is clearly already intrigued. Nothing could be in greater contrast than the next scene; in her bedroom, Tatjana pens a letter to her love and then dreams of a duet as passionate as any in ballet with swirling lifts to take your breath away.

The second Act opens with Tatjana’s birthday party and much ensemble dancing, but apart from a couple of highlights, these scenes are almost filling between the more intimate sections of dance. After Onegin rejects the young sister, tearing up her love letter, he flirts with Olga, eventually provoking a duel with Lenski. The prelude to the duel provides a doom-laden trio for Lenski and the two sisters, which is all the more moving because of this abrupt change of mood.

After shooting Lenski, Onegin flees abroad and the action jumps forward several years, with Act III opening on another ball and a dance with Tatjana and Prince Gremin, her husband: a relationship of close friends, but with little fervour, clearly expressed by Cranko. Onegin returns and his indifference to Tatjana has metamorphosed into strong love. The final scene has both characters desperately wishing for a fresh start, but ends with Tatjana tearing up his letter, and their separation, each realising they have lost the love of their life.

In this performance, Polina Seminova, a guest from Berlin Staatsoper making her debut in the role, played the younger sister's shift from teenager to adult with a maturity that belied her 22 years. Her height and long neck sustained an immaculate line and I was particularly impressed by her slow pirouettes: this danger zone for many dancers always accomplished with smooth grace. As Onegin, Tamas Solymosi partnered capably and his acting was convincing. However, his dancing in the two love scenes seemed under-powered and I found myself reflecting that Carlos Acosta and others would express their ardour in towering jumps. Cranko gives Lenski quick steps reflecting his fertile imagination and Mihail Sosnovishi executed these with much flair. Maria Yakovleva's attractive and skilled performance brought Olga to life. Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper lived up to their world famous reputation in the score adapted from Tchaikovsky by Kurt Heinz-Stolze.

The continued success of Cranko's “Onegin” around the world is heartening, but I wish the UK companies would do more to preserve his fine legacy.

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