Call it an occupational hazard, but there’s a danger when reviewing a work you love deeply of setting the bar impossibly high. Can the soprano singing the leading lady possibly match your favourite interpretation? Can the director bring something new whilst staying faithful to the plot? At least with the ballet Onegin, one doesn’t have to fret about the production: there’s only one and John Cranko’s creation is superb. Indeed, I wish The Royal Opera would employ Jürgen Rose’s gorgeous sets for a new production of Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece. But there are times when a performance catches you off your guard, vaulting even your highest expectations. Tonight, Natalia Osipova’s Tatiana did just that.

Natalia Osipova (Tatiana) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Natalia Osipova (Tatiana)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Osipova is the Tatiana of one’s dreams, exquisitely danced, passionate, nothing held back. The ballet opens with Tatiana lying on the ground, engrossed in a book. The expressions on Osipova’s face tell their own story, eyes wide, lip quivering as she almost mouths the words, brushing off Olga’s interruptions. Here is Tatiana the dreamer, a hopeless romantic, already head-over-heels in love… with a character in a novel. And all this is before Osipova has danced a single step.

Her Tatiana was wonderfully girlish in Act 1, her eyes doting on Onegin, her steps faltering as she followed his elegant tread. The ecstasy on her face as she hugged her pillow, her feverish expression as she scribbled her letter to Onegin, the sob (audible) as he rejected it were all part of an incredibly detailed performance. And she made that tricky transition from teenage dreamer to princess adroitly, a regal presence reigning at the St Petersburg ball. In the final scene, her body jerked sharply, torn between duty and desire until – numbed and horrified – she tore up Onegin’s letter and dismissed him just as he had dismissed her.

Natalia Osipova (Tatiana) and Gary Avis (Prince Gremin) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Natalia Osipova (Tatiana) and Gary Avis (Prince Gremin)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Osipova’s performance had a freshness, a spontaneity about it, possibly inspired by her Onegin. Making his role debut, Reece Clarke brought a towering presence and debonair demeanour, delighting in flirting with Francesca Hayward’s flighty Olga and supporting Osipova in a steamy mirror pas de deux, she whipping her legs around his body, revelling in that blissful moment where he raises her in a one-handed lift. There isn’t a good deal of haughty arrogance as yet to Clarke’s Onegin, but it should come with experience. Earlier in the day I had watched Thiago Soares, returning to the company as a Guest Principal, brooding darkly in his finest role opposite Itziar Mendizábal’s fine Tatiana.

Reece Clarke (Onegin) and Natalia Osipova (Tatiana) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Reece Clarke (Onegin) and Natalia Osipova (Tatiana)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The rest of the cast was exceptionally strong. Hayward’s cheeky Olga was almost weightless in her first-act pas de deux with Matthew Ball’s headstrong Lensky, whose lyrical phrasing before the duel was heartbreaking. Gary Avis’ devoted Prince Gremin supported Osipova tenderly in their moving Act 3 duet. The Royal Ballet corps was exemplary, the diagonals of supported jetés criss-crossing the stage at full throttle at the close of the first scene a real thrill.

Francesca Hayward (Olga) and Matthew Ball (Lensky) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Francesca Hayward (Olga) and Matthew Ball (Lensky)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Valery Ovsyanikov drew luscious playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, the strings rich, the brass secure, only a waterlogged clarinet key detracting from the Francesca da Rimini excerpt in Act 3. What a masterstroke that was of Kurt-Heinz Stolze, who arranged the music, to employ Tchaikovsky’s great symphonic poem here, its doom-laden conclusion perfectly fitting Tatiana's agony at the final curtain. 

Cranko’s ballet is as powerful an interpretation of Pushkin’s verse novel as Tchaikovsky’s opera. It will clock up its 100th performance by The Royal Ballet during this run. Tonight’s will have been one of the most memorable.

*****