“Happiness was once so near us.” That line from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin  should be crushing, the tender moment when Onegin and Tatyana realise what could have been. That final scene should also be crushing in John Cranko’s ballet based on Pushkin’s novel in verse, Tatyana desperately trying to stay strong enough to reject Onegin’s pleading. But what if there’s little connection between the leads? No spark? You end up with a performance such as that from Staatsballett Berlin which was very neatly danced, but lacked an emotional core. In Onegin, that just won’t do.

Hyo-Jung Kang in <i>Onegin</i> © Stuttgarter Ballett
Hyo-Jung Kang in Onegin
© Stuttgarter Ballett
Cranko’s ballet was created for Stuttgart in 1965, using a score beautifully stitched together by Kurt-Heinz Stolze from Tchaikovsky’s lesser known works, so that not a note from the original opera is heard. It has become something of a classic, yet had to wait until 2003 for its Staatsoper Unter den Linden première, revived in 2011. Elisabeth Dalton’s designs immediately set us in the Russian countryside – all silver birches and pastoral tints – while the St Petersburg ball scene glistens with opulence.

The sets are all about transformations, echoing the changes in Tatyana’s life. We see her grow from shy, bookish daydreamer into the infatuated girl who dares to openly declare her love in a letter, then into a member of aristocratic society as Prince Gremin’s wife. Hyo-Jung Kang (a guest from Stuttgart Ballet where she is a principal dancer) never made this metamorphosis. Her doleful eyes, timid expression, and lyrical quality suited Tatyana’s initial encounter with Onegin, but there was little character development during the course of the evening. Her dancing was technically sound, bar a few awkward moments descending from lifts in the bedroom pas de deux, but I sensed a reluctance to ‘let go’, to abandon herself to this most passionate of roles.

Mikhail Kaniskin (Onegin) © Enrico Nawrath
Mikhail Kaniskin (Onegin)
© Enrico Nawrath
She had a fine Onegin to spark against. Mikhail Kaniskin, like Kang a graduate of Stuttgart’s John Cranko Schule, was an imposing, broad-shouldered Onegin. He didn’t smoulder, but he carried off Onegin’s aloof manner well, dismissing Tatyana by tearing up her letter with a disappointed shake of his head. His quarrel with Marian Walter’s Lensky really sparked, the poet quick to pique at the attention Onegin pays Olga at Tatyana’s party. His anguish at the outcome of the duel felt genuine and in Act III he returned the world-weary traveller whose wounds have failed to heal.

Krasina Pavlova’s Olga was more dainty than flirty, but her partnership with Walter’s Lensky was pleasantly created. Walter danced a poignant solo before his duel scene, full of exquisite arabesques.

The corps shone in the outer acts. The peasant dance which closes the first scene, set to a perky Russian dance from the opera Cherevichki (or The Tsarina’s Slippers), frolicked nicely, the diagonal of grand jetés criss-crossing the stage a highlight. The Polonaise at the St Petersburg ball (also from Cherevichki) had imperial elegance. Only the ensemble in Act II failed to impress, with the doddery buffers at Tatyana’s nameday celebrations hogging the limelight a little too much.

Staatsballett Berlin corps: Act III Polonaise © Enrico Nawrath
Staatsballett Berlin corps: Act III Polonaise
© Enrico Nawrath

One of the treats of the evening was hearing Daniel Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin let loose on Tchaikovsky’s score, ably conducted by Paul Connelly. They closed with a rip-snorting account of the doom-laden climax from Francesca da Rimini as Tatyana rejects Onegin. If only the sheer abandon in the Staatskapelle’s playing had been replicated in some of the dancing, this could have been a very special evening indeed.