San Francisco Ballet’s Eugene Onegin, March 21

11 Apr

When an audience gives a performance a standing ovation, lingering on its feet as if savoring the ephemeral vision just witnessed, for me that’s news.  Unlike the ovation I witnessed with the final performance of Hamburg Ballet’s Nijinsky, the opening of John Cranko’s Eugene Onegin this season, with its reading of Pushkin’s turbulent love story, the audience response was a certain settled one, perhaps of  the home team support genre.  But to witness critic Toba Singer joining the standing ovation, you know you’ve seen a remarkable performance, even along side one’s own evaluation of 9.5.

The poetic novel Eugene Onegin is considered Pushkin’s masterpiece; the tale of a restless man catching the fancy of young Tatiana at a country estate honoring her birthday, a scene where her sister Olga and lover Lensky are clearly in love.  It is Lensky who brings Onegin to the occasion.  Tatiana dreams of Onegin, writing a passionate love letter, which Onegin tears up at her birthday party.  In that strained social milieu, Onegin, bored and self-absorbed, after playing solitaire, seizes Olga from Lensky as they are dancing, proceeding to dazzle her.  Lensky is startled, then distraught, then incensed at both friend and lover,  challenges Onegin to a dual.  While this has been brewing Tatiana was introduced to Prince Grimin, who leads her gently and persistently through the dance figures, despite Tatiana’s distraction by the growing tension.

This second season for the production, borrowed from the National Ballet of Canada, enjoyed the cast from last year’s opening minus of an injured Gennadi Nedvigin and his marvelous Lensky; the role was assumed by Joan Boada.   Otherwise, this repetition displayed a growing strength and conviction with each variation;  Maria Kochetkova as Tatiana, Clara Blanco as Olga, Vitor Luiz as Onegin and Pascal Molat as Prince Grimin, a role so gentlemanly only a real pro can provide distinction to a character that is bland, a thankless casting. Boada’s Lensky carried in the joyous sections, but in the fated soliloquy Boada’s emotion emerged primarily in the pauses, a disconnect between movement and emotion.

In this ballet of three acts, two scenes to an act, many moments and interpretations took my breath away.  Vitor Luiz as Onegin is small, singular, contained, it’s clear he’s gritting his teeth with boredom, “I have to go through all this for a weekend?”  His courteous approach to Tatiana, asking to see her reading registers “oh,my God,” which she misses out of shyness; it is reinforced as he clenches and loosens his fist behind his back while escorting her off stage in Act I.  Neither can he be credited for gallantry in the mirror scene where Tatiana, asleep, dreams of Onegin emerging from her mirror to lift her, soaring to the heights of romantic desire.  Those lifted grand jetes carrying Tatiana across the stage in a run are hefty tasks,  Cranko threw those challenges to Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun, the creators of the roles, who danced them when the Stuttgart Ballet first appeared in the Bay Area at Zellerbach  Hall in Berkeley.

Onegin’s gestures with the cards registers growing impatience, erupting in his commandeering Olga from Lensky in the party scene. As Blanco played it, Olga is startled at first, then exhilarated at the attention; impulsive, unconsciously willful, Olga is dazzled by Onegin’s mischievous distraction.  Waggling her finger at Lensky for trying to interfere, it’s simply the last straw.

Tatiana’s solo in the second act opening is eloquently timorous, a sensitivity shining in her attentiveness to the older women in the family circle.  Cranko did a masterful job depicting the intimacy of the country setting with its certain domestic charm amongst the very privileged Russians of the early nineteenth century.  The leisurely warmth with the country guests makes the Onegin eruption and its consequences that more vivid.  Cranko employed the device of the two sisters pleading with Lensky in this scene and before the dual in virtually the same spot, Lensky forcing both women away from him.  In both Act II scenes Onegin tries to dissuade Lensky from dueling, but Lensky’s repeated use of the gloves leaving no other recourse; the fuse has been tempted too far.  Scattered birch trees in the background with muted autumnal hues made the frantic attempts to dissuade Lenskyl the more sombre.  When Onegin strides downstage visibly grim following the duel, Olga prostrate at her feet, Tatiana raises her head, locks eyes with Onegin; his hands rise to his face, in her eyes fully aware of what he has done.

Who knows the number of years elapsing at the beginning of Act III in an elegant ballroom either in Moscow or St. Petersburg where elegant women are dressed beautifully in a later period; Directoire is definitely out.  Prince Grimin makes his appearance and welcomes Lensky, still in black.  Grimin excuses himself.  After a dance of the guests, Onegin goes through a series of recollections, women wafting around him, he passing them along with mind disengaged.  Grimin and Tatiana appear, she in a claret satin gown and they dance a pas de deux of gentle embraces, clearly a marriage of devotion and affection, Tatiana warm in Grimin protectiveness.  Emerging from his mental mist, Onegin recognizes Tatiana and the mature woman she has become. As he observes this marital pas de deux he ventures into their space, transfixed, then retreats, then  drawn again towards the luminescence.  Tatiana retreats with Grimin with a shudder when she and Onegin see each other.

The final scene occurs in an inner room, its domestic detail  best revealed by a half-hidden hobby horse downstage right and Tatiana’s desk downstage left.  To the soaring strains of Tchaikovsky’s music from Francesca da Rimini, Tatiana delays Grimin’s departure, having received Onegin’s letter, seeking reassurance and fortitude in Grimin’s affectionate embrace, he garbed in a splendid green uniform, clearly a commanding officer in the Czar’s military establishment.  Left alone to confront Onegin, she is fearful and agitated, her buried feelings resurrected.  Onegin arrives, intense, promptly falling at her feet, literally crawling across the floor as she tries to disengage herself. One of ballet’s most tempestuous encounters ensues; finally, Tatiana grasps Onegin’s letter from the desk, tearing it to pieces as hers once was and points Onegin to the exit.  As a devastated Onegin rushes out upstage, Tatiana, spent, collects herself as the curtain falls.

Luis gave Kochetkova everything to play against, his singularity of presence a magnificent foil. Arthur Mitchell once made a comment about his partnering of Diana Adams in Agon‘s pas de deux, saying, “It is the man who displays the woman at her best; he controls the situation.”  This was quite patent in the March 21 performance of Eugene Onegin.

As a post-script, I wonder if Alexander Pushkin was not prescient in his poetic novel, ultimately suffering Lensky’s fate in 1837, out of jealousy.  Unlike Lensky, however, Pushkin himself had more than a small touch of Onegin’s character, leaving him vulnerable to rage at the flirtation of his wife with a French-born soldier in the Czar’s Imperial Guard.


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