Is this ballet for you?
Go If: You like story ballets with grand designs and plenty of pashmina Pas de Deux. You have read and wept through “unhappily ever after” novels like Anna Karenina, Gone with the Wind and well… Onegin.
Skip if: You are expecting to hear the famous score from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. The ballet does use Tchaikovsky’s music but not a single bar of the opera.
Johan Kobborg offers an unforgettable portrayal of the proud & cynical cad who discovers love too late.
Alina Cojocaru is perfect as Tatiana, the girl who evolves from naive romantic into the confident wife who rejects love for marital duty.
And this being a signature Stuttgart Ballet piece, we asked our friend and Onegin enthusiast Naomi Mori to send us her dream cast. Not to be missed, she says, are: Evan McKie as Onegin, Sue Jin Kang as Tatiana and Marijn Rademaker as Lensky
John Cranko first had the idea for a ballet based on Alexander Pushkin‘s verse novel when he choreographed dances for Tchaikovky’s opera Eugene Onegin in 1952. He pitched this to the ROH board at Covent Garden but it was rejected. After a string of successful pieces for Sadler’s Wells Ballet (Pineapple Poll 1951, The Lady and the Fool 1956 and The Prince of Pagodas, 1957), Cranko left London for Stuttgart. There he created one of the most successful ballet adaptations of Romeo & Juliet (1962) and confirmed his flair for dramatic narrative, in the same vein as his contemporary and close friend Kenneth MacMillan (whose own choreographic language would be influenced by Cranko’s).
In Stuttgart he received full support from Walter Erich Schäfer – General Manager of the opera and dance companies – to revisit his Onegin project, with the caveat that the opera score should not be used. Instead it fell to Kurt-Heinze Stolze, ballet Kapellmeister, to assemble various little known Tchaikovsky pieces into a ballet score. Cranko developed a libretto closely following the novel and the ballet premiered 13 April 1965 with Marcia Haydée as Tatiana and Ray Barra as Onegin. Forty five years on, Onegin is considered Cranko’s definitive masterpiece and remains in the repertory of over 20 ballet companies around the world. At the time of its premiere Onegin was hailed a success with audiences and performers, but there was some controversy with opera purists and other personalities (for instance George Balanchine) who did not approve of the opera score having been discarded.
Between 1965 and 1967 Cranko revised Onegin several times. He scrapped the original ending of Tatiana kissing her children good night, as this lessened the drama of her last encounter with Onegin. He also removed the prologue where Onegin was seen at his uncle’s deathbed, and had the score re-edited accordingly. The version we are now familiar with was first performed by Stuttgart Ballet in October 1967.
The fact that Cranko began his career as a dancer in a highly theatrical company – the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (which later became The Royal Ballet) – played an important part in the development of his style and preference for narrative pieces.
In Onegin we see movement filled with dramatic intention, solos and duets which advance the narrative. In the Act I Pas de Deux unrestrained lifts and swift throws represent the heroine’s wild imagination. This contrasts with movements in Act III which are more suggestive of Tatiana’s hesitation in the face of Onegin’s confessed feelings. Solos are also used to communicate something about the character; Lensky’s dance before the duel conveys melancholy but also determination, whereas the series of throws and lifts in the subsequent scene with Olga and Tatiana hint at their state of despair. Group dances serve a dual purpose; either as entertainment device or as backdrop for scenes between the main characters.
One of Cranko’s choreographic traits is “still pose” inserted into the dance, as if to heighten its emotional impact. Though these poses are not ballet mime per se, they express specific emotions or ideas. For instance, Tatiana signaling to Onegin that he must leave (end of the third act) or the arm gestures in the last Pas de Deux. These elements give to the interpreters of Cranko choreography – of Onegin in particular – rare opportunities for self-expression and complex character development.
Scene 1: Madame Larina’s Garden, Russia early Nineteenth century
Madame Larina, her youngest daughter Olga and the nurse Filipevna are seen gossiping and embellishing party dresses, while Tatiana, Larina’s eldest daughter, does not seem at all interested in what she will wear at her own upcoming birthday party. She prefers to keep reading her book.
As young girls from the nearby estates arrive, Olga and Tatiana invite them to play a game with a mirror. They believe if a girl looks into the mirror at a specific time, she will see the image of her future husband reflected. Lensky, a young poet betrothed to Olga, arrives with Onegin, his friend from St. Petersburg who has come has come in search of countryside distractions.
While introductions are still being made, Tatiana looks into the mirror and sees Onegin’s face. This fuels her romantic fantasies. They meet and Onegin invites her to take a stroll, while Lensky and Olga are left alone to declare their love for each other. Onegin starts losing interest after finding her universe very provincial; he sees in Tatiana a naive country girl who reads too many love stories. Tatiana on the other hand is completely infatuated with this elegant and sophisticated stranger who is so different from the countrymen she knows.
Scene 2: Tatiana’s Bedroom
Alone in her bedroom Tatiana fantasises about her encounter with Onegin and decides to write a love letter, opening her feelings to him. She falls asleep and dreams of him. In dreams her earlier premonition comes alive; here Tatiana and Onegin dance the famous “mirror Pas de Deux“
Scene 1: Madame Larina’s House
Guests arrive to celebrate Tatiana’s birthday. The room is full of gossip, not only about Olga’s engagement to Lensky, but also about a blossoming romance between Tatiana and the newcomer. Among the guests is Prince Gremin, a distant relative. He is in love with Tatiana and Madame Larina hopes for a match, but Tatiana barely notices him.
Onegin finds the event tedious and struggles to maintain civility; he is irritated with Tatiana’s letter which he regards as a product of adolescent infatuation. He seeks out Tatiana. Telling her he cannot possibly love her he tears up the letter. Instead of feeling sympathy towards Tatiana’s obvious distress, he leaves irritated. For his own amusement Onegin decides to provoke Lensky and flirts openly with Olga. She responds jokingly to his attentions but Lensky takes offence. In a fit of jealousy he challenges Onegin for a duel.
Scene 2: The Duel
Lensky stands alone, meditating on the incident. He dances a solo, where he expresses his sadness. Tatiana and Olga arrive to try and reason with him, but his high romantic ideals have been destroyed. He is devastated and regards Onegin’s foolish behaviour as a betrayal. Onegin arrives and attempts a reconciliation but Lensky is adamant. The duel takes place and Lensky ends up being shot. For the first time in his life, Onegin is aghast at the events and with deep remorse, he leaves.
Scene 1: Prince Gremin’s Palace in St. Petersburg
Many years have passed and Onegin has just returned to St. Petersburg from his travels around the world. He is received at a ball in Prince Gremin’s palace. Gremin has recently married and Onegin is shocked to discover that his elegant young wife is none other than Tatiana who now looks grown up and transformed. There and then he realises his mistake and how his life has been wasted. He decides to seek out Tatiana to confess his love for her.
Scene 2: Tatiana’s Room.
Tatiana reads a love letter from Onegin. He is standing before her, awaiting her answer. For a moment Tatiana reminisces about the past and her fantasies but, regaining composure, she tells him that it’s too late; she used to love him but now she must remain faithful to her husband. Onegin insists and in despair, she tears up the letter and commands him to leave. He obeys at last. Alone again, Tatiana collapses with grief.
- Manuel Legris rehearses Onegin on the eve of his retirement from POB [link]
- Mathias Heymann dances Lensky’s solo [link]
- Evan McKie and Myriam Simon in the “Mirror” Pas de Deux [link]
- Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in the “Mirror” Pas de Deux [link]
- Elena Tentschikova dances Tatiana’s solo from Act II [link]
- Artists of the National Ballet of Canada perform in the Act I [link]
- Hervé Moreau and Isabelle Ciaravola dance the Act III Pas de Deux [link]
- Evan McKie and Myriam Simon dance the Act III Pas de Deux [link]
- Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg dance the Act III Pas de Deux [Part I] and [Part II]
- Trailer for The Royal Ballet’s production [link]
Working with Cranko, Kurt-Heinze Stolze put together a score from various Tchaikovsky compositions. Stolze thought short musical numbers would be easier to work with. He connected them to create a flow and match the underlying dramatic structure. The basis for the score is formed by piano compositions, which are used as character leitmotifs or arranged for the ensemble dances. In orchestrating the music Stolze stayed close to Tchaikovsky’s typical patterns reserving full orchestral power exclusively for climaxes.
The most often employed passages come from The Seasons as well as the opera Cherevichki (The Tsarina’s Slippers, 1885). A duet from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet serves as basis for Tatiana and Onegin’s Act I Pas de Deux. The second movement of Francesca da Rimini can be heard in the Act III Pas de Deux.
An essential iPod / Spotify list should include the following tracks:
- The Seasons, Op. 37
- Nocturne n°4, Op. 19
- Three pieces for piano, Op. 9
- Six Pieces for piano, Op. 19
- Six Pieces for piano, Op. 51
- 18 Pieces for piano, Op. 72
- Cherevichki, The Caprices of Oxana (aria)
- Francesca Da Rimini, Op.32
- Romeo and Juliet Fantasie Overture. Scene for Soprano, Tenor and Orchestra.
Onegin is currently danced by the following companies:
- POB, The Tokyo Ballet, Houston Ballet, The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Hamburg Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, Australian Ballet, Bayerisches Staatsballett – using designs by Jürgen Rose
- Berlin Staatsballett, Vienna Staatsoper, Dutch National Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet – using designs by Elizabeth Dalton
- Ballet de Rome, La Scala – using designs by Pier Luigi Samaratini and Roberta Guidi di Bagno
- National Ballet of Canada – using designs by Santo Loquasto
Choreography and Libretto: John Cranko (after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin)
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinz Stolze
Designs & Costumes: Jürgen Rose (Munich, 1972)
Original Cast: Marcia Haydée as Tatiana, Ray Barra as Onegin, Egon Madsen as Lensky and Ana Cardus as Olga
Premiere: April 13, 1965 at the Wuerttembergische Staatstheatre, Stuttgart
Sources and Further Information
- Fine Smooth and Seamless by Horst Koegler. Programme Notes for Onegin, Royal Opera House, 2007
- Music Note by Kurt-Heinze Stolze. Programme Notes for Onegin, Royal Opera House, 2007
- Onegin, an Introduction by Giannandrea Poesio, Bert Gillian and the ROH Education. Royal Opera House
- Wikipedia Entry for Onegin Ballet [link]
- Wikipedia Entry for Eugene Onegin [link]
- Wikipedia Entry for Alexander Pushkin [link]
- Ballet Notes for Onegin. The National Ballet of Canada, June 2010 [link]
- Onegin Page, The Stuttgart Ballet [link]
- Oneguine, John Cranko. Danser En France [link]