The chill outside was certainly a reminder of Siberian weather, but the anticipation of seeing one of the 20th century’s most popular and beloved dramatic ballets (and set in a milder Russia!) soon had the fingers and toes circulating once more. The Royal Opera House was buzzing with expectation and while most of the audience was not disappointed at the end of the evening, this nit-picking writer has seen better performances. Of this, more anon.

Courtesy of ROH
Courtesy of ROH

Onegin was created by South African-born choreographer John Cranko and premièred at the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965. The Royal Ballet first performed it in 2001 and it has remained in the repertoire ever since. The ballet is based on the epic novel in verse Eugene Onegin written by Alexander Pushkin in the early 19th century, which was adapted into an opera in 1879 by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. However, for his balletic version, Cranko chose to commission a selection of other Tchaikovsky works compiled by Kurt-Heinz Stolze.

Pushkin’s story tells of the arrogant Onegin from St Petersburg visiting his friend Lensky in the countryside where he meets two sisters – Lensky’s flirtatious fiancée Olga and her bookworm sister, Tatiana. Invited to Tatiana’s sixteenth birthday, Onegin cannot conceal his distaste of provincial life and remains aloof. However, the romantic Tatiana has fallen in love with him and is dismayed when he hands back the letter she has written to him, and then proceeds to flirt with her sister. Lensky is furious and demands retribution and at the subsequent duel, is shot by Onegin. Years later after self inflicted exile, Onegin returns to St Petersburg and finds his friend Prince Gremin now married to the beautiful and elegant Tatiana. He writes to her professing his love and asking forgiveness, and in a poignant scene where her defences are nearly broken down, she summons up her strength, hands him back his letter and tells him to go.

So it is obvious that this dramatic tale of doomed love makes a cracking scenario for a ballet, together with wonderfully depictive music, sets that conjure up western ideas of Russian traditions and lifestyles, pretty costumes and cleverly crafted choreography that is filled with joyful group dancing, solo soul-searching soliloquies and dynamic pas de deux. The role of Tatiana is one coveted by most ballerinas for it gives not only choreographic challenges, but also the opportunity to develop the character from young romantic book reading, country girl to heartbroken adolescent, then to the sophisticated, elegant St Petersburg princess who has to show her strength of character when her former lover returns to claim her.

In Alina Cojocaru, all these qualities come alive. Elfin in size, she is gigantic in her characterization and lives every moment of her role embodying it like a second skin. She moves on pointe as easily as normal walking – lightly, prettily, securely – and her facial expressions are deep and convincing. Awakened from the make-believe characters in her books and suddenly finding herself besotted with love, her eyes never leave Onegin for a moment and she follows him like a puppy. In the bedroom pas de deux where she “dreams” that he appears through the mirror to dance with her, her body literally melts in his clasp as he picks her up and carries her around the stage. And she makes a gracious Princess Gremin who is happy and content with her married life until Onegin’s reappearance turns her world upside down. Simply acknowledging him at first, Cojocaru delves deep into her dramatic soul, and her scene with the penitent Onegin touches the heart. Her whole body collapses with his kisses and shows she is ready to give in during their rough and passionate pas de deux. Then suddenly she stands up tall – all five foot of her – and there was hardly a dry eye in the auditorium when the final curtain dropped on her sobbing figure standing centre stage after she has commanded Onegin to leave her forever. So it was thanks to Alina that the evening was a satisfying one especially when it was announced that the expected Onegin – Johan Kobburg – was injured and would not be dancing. He and Alina have forged a fantastic partnership in this ballet in the past.

Her Onegin instead was guest principal Jason Reilly, from Stuttgart Ballet. He is a tall young man with long slim legs and hips, and wide shoulders – emphasised by his black costume. He has a pleasant face (which in Act III as an older Onegin with a moustache, reminded of Clark Gable, but without his twinkle) and a nice smile – when it was called upon. His dancing is secure – good long stretched arabesques, deep pliés, taut turns – but his acting failed to impress. There was little chemistry between him and Tatiana and there were a few fluffs in partnering (acceptable if it was a sudden cast change). However, the expected surging passion and risk takings in the two big pas de deux were sadly missed.

Steven McRae made a dapper Lensky with enviable technique. His solo before the duel, was beautifully performed with clean balanced poses and heart-felt emotion. He’s not a naturally romantic figure on stage – he is too careful and lacks impetuosity, but he was jolly with Olga, (Akane Takada). She has a pleasing line and is light and fluid, but needs to delve deeper into her characterisation. The company flew though the air neatly and exuberantly in their various folk and society dances, and Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music was played well, even if somewhat subdued.