Outside the Verdi canon, my favourite opera is undoubtedly Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. I reviewed many productions of it for Opera Britannia: in the opera house, from the cinema and on DVD. Tchaikovsky ‘lyric scenes’ capture the essence of Pushkin’s verse novel beautifully and Tatyana’s Letter Scene, where she declares her love for the aloof Onegin, is one of the greatest in all opera. This weekend, Onegin again weaves his way into my calendar… not the opera this time, but the ballet created in 1965 by John Cranko. The music is still Tchaikovsky’s – although not a single note comes from the opera – and it can be nearly as powerful as its better-known operatic counterpart.
Cranko had first suggested a ballet version of Onegin to Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the 1950s, but the idea was rejected. After choreographing Pineapple Poll, The Lady and the Fool and The Prince of the Pagodas in London, Cranko left for Stuttgart. There, Walter Erich Schäfer gave him the go-ahead for Onegin… on the strict understanding that no music from Tchaikovsky’s opera was used. Instead, Cranko turned to Kurt-Heinz Stolze to assemble some lesser-known Tchaikovsky works to stitch together a score which fitted his requirements precisely, mostly drawing on piano works, including The Seasons. He also made use of the early opera Cherevichki and the symphonic poems The Voyevoda and Francesca da Rimini.
The opening scene immediately establishes Russian pastoral charm, all silver birches and cherry blossoms set to the festive strains of “February” from The Seasons. This collection, which should more accurately have been given the title The Months, also provides both solos of the poet Lensky; “January” for his Act I solo and the melancholy “October” before his duel with Onegin in Act II. This music even contains a similar sort of line to Lensky’s aria “Kuda, kuda” (“Where, oh where have you gone, golden days of my youth?”) from Tchaikovsky’s opera at the same point in the score. Lensky’s pas de deux with Olga in Act I is set to the barcarolle “June”.
A perky oboe-led Russian dance from the opera Cherevichki (or The Tsarina’s Slippers) provides the close to the ballet’s first scene. The opera also provides the music for the grand polonaise to open the St Petersburg ball in Act III.
Tchaikovsky’s Op.51 Six Morceaux provide a dance for the girls from the neighbourhood (“Polka peu dansante”), the opening of Tatyana’s name-day party (Natha-valse) and the “Valse sentimentale”, when Onegin arrives at the party and dances with Tatyana before rejecting her letter. Onegin is much more severe here than in the opera or the novel, where he sermonises against her rash behaviour, admitting that if he were the marrying kind, she would be his choice, but that he could only love her as a brother. In Cranko’s ballet, Onegin rips up the letter before returning it, leaving Tatyana mortified, wishing for the ground to swallow her up. Op. 51/5, the Nocturne, also provides the music for Tatyana’s tender Act III pas de deux with Prince Gremin, her husband.
The ballet actually follows the action of the opera closely, albeit in six scenes rather than seven (Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana now takes place at her name-day ball in Act II). Cranko revised the ballet in 1967, discarding an opening scene where Onegin waits at his uncle’s death bed (as in the novel). He also changed the ending to remove the scene where Tatyana kisses her children goodnight, which lessened the impact of her scene where she rejects Onegin, who has returned to St Petersburg after several years absence only to realise that he loves Tatyana. A more controversial change Cranko made was to have Olga and Tatyana attempting to intercede in the duel scene.
Personally, the most powerful moments in the ballet are the Letter Scene and the final meeting between Onegin and Tatyana. How can a choreographer depict what a character is writing in a letter? By turning it into a dream sequence pas de deux. Cranko employs the device of a mirror into which she gazes. He beautifully sets up this idea in Act I, where Tatyana and her flighty sister Olga play a game, the idea being that whoever looks into the mirror will see their beloved.
In her bedroom, as Tatyana sleepily pens the letter she imagines returning to the mirror… only to be confronted with the image of Onegin staring back at her. He steps out from the mirror and partners her in a pas de deux in which a girlish abandon is released in her as Onegin literally sweeps Tatyana off her feet in a series of increasingly acrobatic lifts. Much of this is set to music Tchaikovsky originally intended for an opera on Romeo and Juliet (you’ll listen for strains from the famous Fantasy Overture in vain). This music lay abandoned until Sergei Taneyev rescued the score and turned it into a ten minute duet.
Onegin’s final meeting with Tatyana is set to the passionate closing section from his symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini. In it, Cranko has Onegin encircle Tatyana in his arms, desperate to cling to her. Stolze’s choice of music is very clever. One of the most famous episodes from Dante’s Inferno concerns Francesca and her illicit lover Paolo (the lovers depicted in Rodin’s The Kiss). At the head of his score to Francesca da Rimini, Tchaikovsky quoted a line from Inferno: “there is no greater sorrow than to recall times of happiness in misery”. This almost echoes the line Onegin and Tatyana sing in Tchaikovsky’s opera: “Happiness was once so near us”. As with Paolo and Francesca, any love between Onegin and Tatyana is doomed. Now, they can never be together. Any chance of happiness has evaporated. In the opera, Onegin, rejected, is left to lament his “pitiable fate”. In the ballet, the focus is on Tatyana, suffocating in anguish as the curtain falls.