Onegin, West Australian Ballet

 West Australian Ballet, His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 20 and 21

WEST Australian Ballet recently took to the streets of Perth with a camera to teach people how to pronounce the name of its latest production (no, it’s not One Gin). There’s a view that if people are wary they’ll get it wrong, they may decide to stay at home. On the other hand, there’s nothing like positive word of mouth to get box office moving, and the volley of bravos for Onegin on its opening night bodes well. The reception was well deserved.

Jayne Smeuldersas Tatiana  and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

Jayne Smeulders as Tatiana and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

John Cranko made his version of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin in 1965 for Stuttgart Ballet and it quickly became a ballet loved by dancers and one that most important companies have in their repertoire, although it’s odd that the Bolshoi staged it for the first time only this year. That addition to the Boshoi’s repertoire precipitated one of the biggest ballet scandals of the year, as it happens, when superstar Svetlana Zakharova, who had been learning the role of Tatiana, was passed over for opening night and decided to take her bat and ball and go home. The decision to relegate Zakharova to second cast for an important new production underlined the incredibly tight grip held on the rights, controlled by owner Dieter Graefe and Stuttgart Ballet’s artistic director Reid Anderson.

So how does West Australian Ballet get to do Onegin? It was programmed by former WAB artistic director Ivan Cavallari before he left at the end of last year, in a former life a principal dancer with Stuttgart Ballet. He is one of the people entrusted with staging Onegin around the world. Snap. Now artistic director of Ballet de l’Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, Cavallari was on hand in Perth to polish the performances. Earlier coaching had been in the hands of Egon Madsen, the greatly admired dancer on whom Cranko created the role of Lensky.

Cranko follows the essentials of Pushkin’s poem. A bored aristocrat toys with the affections of a guileless country girl, rejects her, and gets embroiled in a matter of honour. Perhaps he didn’t really mean to rouse her passions, but he is far more sophisticated than she and looking for diversion. Years later Onegin is made to suffer the same agonies he once so carelessly caused Tatiana. Caught up in the maelstrom are Tatiana’s lively sister Olga and her lover, the ill-starred Lensky.

Unrequited passion, jealousy, death and renunciation are tightly packed into six swiftly flowing scenes danced to a patchwork quilt of Tchaikovsky melodies arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinze Stolze (Cranko was steered away from using Tchaikovsky’s opera).  As played by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Myron Romanul at the helm, the music is driven hard and occasionally sounds too rushed. But there’s no doubt it’s a high old time at the ballet.

WAB is fielding two casts, neither without blemishes but each with much to offer. On Friday new leading artist Jiri Jelinek, a glamorous Onegin, and WAB’s prima ballerina Jayne Smeulders set the bar high for mastery of Cranko’s sweeping lines and challenging pas de deux. Jelinek comes to the company with a great deal of experience in the role, having been a principal artist with Stuttgart Ballet, home of Onegin, and National Ballet of Canada. He is now a guest principal artist with NBC and perhaps more rightly should be listed as a guest principal at WAB, given that his contract runs only until January. Presumably if everyone is happy it will be extended.

There are many moments in the choreography that could be called repetitive and unsubtle; whether they strike the viewer as so during the heat of performance is dependent on the conviction of the principal players. Jelinek is well suited to the highly coloured drama of Cranko’s story-telling with its unfolding elongations, deep lunges, sweeping legs and swift, crystalline turns and he establishes the character through aristocratic bearing and an air of disdain for the country society in which he finds himself in the first act. This is a man who wears his superiority like a second suit.

Smeulders is something of a bluestocking Tatiana, an intelligent and perhaps slightly severe young woman who will fall hard. When she writes a letter to Onegin declaring her love, it is done feverishly. Smeulders makes it clear there is a great outpouring of sentiment. She makes it a moment of great urgency rather than a girlish error of judgment. Against that, there was less of a gulf between Tatiana as a girl and the mature woman of the third act who has married a Prince and is in charge of a grand household.

On Saturday Fiona Evans and Matthew Lehmann raised the emotional stakes in what turned out to be an inspired pairing. Lehmann had a scratchy start in the exposing – and important – Act I solo. Onegin needs to be established as a very confident man. But Lehmann clearly took a deep breath during interval, started giving a sense of the character he wanted to be, and the performance took off. Evans had already shown a quite different Tatiana, a fresh, impressionable girl smitten by the man in black. Her transformation into Prince Gremin’s loving but sorely tempted wife was transfixing. Lehmann is a strong partner and the set-piece pas de deux were taken daringly, particularly the Act III renunciation scene. It crackled with passion. Smeulders was a deeper thinker, Evans initially the greater innocent; Jelinek was an elegant thoroughbred, Lehmann a darker soul. Take your pick (or see both).

Dane Holland’s Lensky (Friday) had the musicality and control that sometimes eluded Daniel Roberts in the second cast, although, as with Lehmann on Saturday, Act I nerves led Holland to hurry and blur some turns. His Act II solo, however, showed him to be an expressive dancer of great promise, although as yet his characterisation is not deep. Roberts seemed to be spooked by that lovely, difficult aria of regret and longing, chopping up the dance phrases so they were disconnected from the music. As Lensky’s wayward love Olga, Sarah Sutcliffe (Saturday) edged out Melissa Boniface in conveying the careless high spirits that set tragedy in train. Both danced stylishly and with feeling, although I felt each could have surrendered more freely to the lavish backbends Cranko bestowed on the character. Sutcliffe’s effervescence felt naturally and engagingly expressed. Boniface was a little too tightly wound, the tension expressed in a too-fixed smile. In the small, crucial role of Prince Gremin, the good man who Tatiana marries, Christian Luck and David Mack both impressed.

The rest of the company is relegated to friends (the women of the company needing softer landings in the first act frolics), country folk and some rather irritating pseudo old folk doing too much old folk shtick. This really is a ballet that needs a goodly array of former dancers to take such roles and fill in the society represented, but of course that’s a budgetary issue, and I expect well out of WAB’s means.

A special mention must be made of the sets, borrowed from Prague. The severe limitations of His Majesty’s mean swaths of the Onegin design can’t be used and the production looks sadly under-dressed, diminishing the experience. The small stage also means dancers have to pull themselves in, making smaller what should be grand and expansive. Perth desperately needs a new lyric theatre, right now.

Onegin ends October 5.

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