American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 4, 2012
by Gay Morris
© 2012 Gay Morris
American Ballet Theater unveiled a new production of John Cranko’s “Onegin” Tuesday that looks surprisingly like the old one. Santo Loquasto’s designs are lighter and more impressionistic than those Jürgen Rose created for the original staging, but they keep to the same time periods of early and mid-nineteenth century. Since the choreography and direction remain as they were in the past, the net effect is that the ballet seems slightly airier but otherwise little changed. This may have been part of the plan, since it does not alter Cranko’s original conception and allows emphasis to remain on the plot and characters. Not that much could detract from Tuesday’s stellar cast, which was led by Marcelo Gomes, Diana Vishneva, Natalia Osipova and Jared Matthews.
The ballet, roughly based on Pushkin’s poem of unrequited love, is made for great actor-dancers. Gomes is one of the best, and although he is always fascinating to watch, I wonder if Onegin is altogether his style. He had difficulty appearing bored and disdainful, which he must do in order to depict a world-weary visitor to the provincial home of Madame Larina and her daughters. Gomes has a personality that wants to be engaged, even if he’s being bad, as he is when dancing Von Rothbart in “Swan Lake” where he glitters with energy. As Onegin, he tended to resort to a kind of woodenness in lieu of sophisticated ennui and careless cruelty. This rigidity was evident when he is introduced to Tatiana in the garden of her mother’s house and later at the ball after he has read her love letter and tells her to stop bothering him with her naïve crush. Gomes came alive when he could show intense emotion, which he did in his despair after killing his friend Lensky in the duel. He was at his best in the passionate last act confrontation with Tatiana where he declares his love for her and she rejects him.
Vishneva was a beautiful Tatiana, wide-eyed and adoring as she fell for Onegin, then dignified and loving in her relationship with her husband Prince Gremin, danced sensitively by Gennadi Saveliev. Vishneva was poignant, too, in the last scene, when Onegin professes his love for her. Her own love is still strong, but so is her knowledge that it is too late for them.
While Tatiana’s predicament is unfortunate, she has, in fact, escaped a man who is by nature thoughtless and selfish. It is her sister Olga whose life is genuinely tragic, and Osipova breaks your heart as she moves from joy in her love for Lensky, to her innocent teasing of him at the instigation of Onegin, and finally to her devastation at the terrible consequences that follow. Osipova does not have Vishneva’s classic beauty but she has a warmth that floods the theater and a technical ease that makes everything she does seem utterly natural.
Jared Matthews was a fresh-faced and handsome Lensky, obviously in love with Olga, his fiancée. He made Lensky’s emotion clear as Onegin flirts with Olga and what begins as an amusing game turns to a form of humiliation.
The ABT company as a whole carried off both mime and dances effortlessly. Individual members were especially good in the provincial ball scene, which is full of varied country characters. Susan Jaffe, once an ABT principal who might well have danced Tatiana, was a lively Madame Larina. Ormsby Wilkins conducted the orchestra in Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s arrangement of various pieces of Tchaikovsky music.
It is hard to believe that “Onegin” has weathered more than forty years in the active repertory. Perhaps best described as a pantomime with dancing, its choreography is undistinguished but nevertheless supports and underlines the mimed story. For example, when Onegin dances a solo expressing his boredom, it is to emphasize what he has already shown when walking through the ballroom ignoring those around him. When Tatiana dances her frustration at writing a love letter to Onegin, we already have seen her tearing up a sheet of paper at her desk. This arrangement of mime followed by dance makes the story easy to follow and may deflect attention from the fact that the dances, themselves, express very little. Cranko grew up at the Royal Ballet in an environment dominated by the works of Frederick Ashton. His answer to Ashton’s portrayal of multi-layered emotion through danced movement was works like “Onegin” that substitute mimed action for the subtleties of choreography.
As for the sets and costumes, they are new to New York, but were given their world premiere by the National Ballet of Canada in 2010. Santo Loquasto designed a massive architectural structure of three classical portals which are located at the side of the stage for all three acts. The country scenes include a background of birch trees, the St. Petersburg ballroom, large gilt and crystal chandeliers set against a red ground. These replace Rose’s more realistic sets that changed for each scene. Costumes are not too different from the old ones—light colored for the women, now with hints of teal for Tatiana and apricot for Olga. Again Tatiana wears a red dress for the St. Petersburg ball and Onegin is costumed in black throughout. In all, the designs are simpler than those of Jürgen Rose, yet ultimately change little in the feeling of the ballet.
© 2012 Gay Morris
Photos by Gene Schiavone
Top: Diana Vishneva in "Onegin"
Bottom: Marcelo Gomes and Diana Vishneva in "Onegin"