“Tatyana dear, with you I’m weeping / […], you’re condemned to perish / but first, the dreams that hope can cherish / evoke for you a sombre bliss […] You drink the magic draught of yearning / […] and in your mind […] find shelter for trysts.” (Pushkin)

Marianela Núñez (Tatiana) and Thiago Soares (Onegin) © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Marianela Núñez (Tatiana) and Thiago Soares (Onegin)
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

Pushkin’s verses might well be almost 200 years old, but Tatyana's fantasies are dreams we romantics still yearn over. Most know best of Tatyana’s love for Eugene Onegin through Tchaikovsky’s opera, or the novel’s adaptation for the screen, but I’ve often wondered why none before Cranko choreographed the ballet, given the dramatic potential offered by the four main characters: Onegin’s brusque and impetuous demeanour, Lensky’s passion, Olga’s joie de vivre and Tatiana’s reserved, romantic nature all make for brilliant dances. But it isn’t necessarily a given how one ought to stage parallel treatments of the characters’ psychologies, and Cranko made necessay choices. Portraying Tatiana’s inner desires and outer morals in a permeable battle of powers is perhaps the best one he made. Another was to choose Tchaikovsky’s music, although not one note is borrowed from the score of the opera. Instead, some of the composer’s lesser-known early works (including The Seasons) were arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinz Stolze.

Whether in the tenderness of its lighter motifs that come to mark Tatiana’s presence, or in the expansive rolling roundness of the more fully orchestrated moments, the compiled score lends the ballet subtle support.

Harmonious designs (by Jürgen Rose) paint a Russian countryside straight out of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, where nature blossoms and village folk live happily in the shadow of an aristocratic estate. The contemplative manner of the setting here might not suggest as doomed a fate (as that on which Chekov’s play centres), but the impending sense of personal trauma is just as pressing.

Thiago Soares (Onegin) and Marianela Núñez (Tatiana) © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Thiago Soares (Onegin) and Marianela Núñez (Tatiana)
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

Whereas Tatiana (Marianela Núñez) a quiet romantic at heart, devours literature to quench her heart’s inner thirst for love, Olga (Akane Takada), her younger sister, is a vivacious young girl who knows her charms leave no man indifferent, least of all their neighbour, the passionate poet Lensky (Vadim Muntagirov). On this particular day, Lensky brings along his friend, the nobleman Onegin (Thiago Soares). Tatiana falls in love with Onegin as soon as she sets eyes on him. Her steps become hurried, her shoulders a little shy, and her bourrés around him, while sweet, are almost giddy-like. In a candid – or naïve – bout of youthful lust, she declares her love for him in a letter. Unreciprocated, her infatuation goes from burgeoning to all-consuming and Onegin’s rejection is violent – haughty and contemptuous. He then proceeds to flirt with and entice Olga, which not only further exacerbates Tatiana’s pain and loneliness in the face of rejection, but also provokes Lensky. The men fight in duel, which results in the inevitable death of the poet. Repentance comes around though, for the title giving character, for whom I struggled to feel any sympathy for in the first two acts. By the third, he’s imploring Tatiana – now a respected noblewoman, settled down and married to Prince Gremin. But after a heartbreaking pas de deux, she, despite the overflowing tremors of her heart, resists, and rejects Onegin, leaving them both, as well as I, with a broken heart.

Vadim Muntagirov (Lensky) © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Vadim Muntagirov (Lensky)
© Tristram Kenton | ROH
Both main characters go through a juxtaposition of, rather than onstage transformation between, their youthful selves in Act I and II and adulthood in Act III. Thiago Soares, as Onegin, lends the role uprightness and just the right amount of restraint. He is technically clean, very musical and a strong actor. His charisma is countered by an eloquent, grand and noble Lensky in Vadim Muntagirov, whose aura decidedly fills not just the stage but also, unarguably, the depth of the Opera House. Muntagirov performed Lensky’s intricate second act variation with ease, precision and fine technique, and I can only deplore the choreography – but only there, and only for a slight moment – as I was left wanting more out of the all over too quickly Onegin—Lensky duel.

Akane Takada was warm and bubbly as Olga, and her graceful port de bras, light ballon and clean batterie lend the role freshness and sparkle. But Olga is also a flirt, most evidently when she dances with a taunting Onegin, testing Lensky’s attraction, and a feistier, more daring, and, frankly, sexier game would lend the role more flair.

And then there is Marianela Núñez. The Argentine is one of the most accomplished artists I have seen on stage in recent years. She particularly suits romantic roles, which she always bites into with humility, finesse and – evidently – an open heart. As Tatiana, she is simply divine. In the public scenes, she is suitably shy and fragile at first, then a tender and composed wife (in a steady pas de deux with Ryoichi Hirano as Prince Gremin). Yet the character’s inner self is most alive, loving and passionate, and it is in the Letter Scene pas and in the final dance with Soares that Núñez most excel. Those are also the finest moments in Cranko’s choreography.

Marianela Núñez (Tatiana) and Ryoichi Hirano (Gremin) © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Marianela Núñez (Tatiana) and Ryoichi Hirano (Gremin)
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

Soares has the lead in the dream sequence, where Tatiana is transported into the delights of love, Núñez’s back giving in and arching over his supporting arms, her heart and body transported into a turmoil that sees Tatiana giving in to her wildest – or perhaps sweetest – dreams. In a mirror-like effect, she has the upper hand in the final pas de deux, where Onegin eventually, finally, had me empathise with him. This is mostly down to Soares’ touching performance and Cranko’s simple, subdued choreography. The arms encircling Tatiana never quite touch her, and the man down on his knees never halts the woman turning away, but still manages to hold onto her a little longer, and both rejoicing in the arms of Cupid for what we all know is an idyllic, but too short-lived, moment makes the otherwise delectable poison of love taste devastatingly bitter.  

With such a fine couple leading the drama, Cranko’s Onegin is, unarguably, a success.