In an interesting piece of programming, the Royal Opera House opens its first 2013 season with two versions of Alexander Pushkin’s classic verse-novel - ‘Onegin’ the ballet and ‘Eugene Onegin’ the opera. The inspiration for the story is the same, although the interpretations differ. Tchaikovsky wrote the music for both, but the scores are completely separate. Both opera and ballet, however, resonate with the powerful, passionate and heartrending emotion for which Tchaikovsky is so well known and loved.
The Royal Ballet’s ‘Onegin’ opens on Saturday, January 19. It’s the work of South African choreographer, John Cranko, who first became acquainted with Pushkin’s dramatic story of unrequited love when he created the dances for a production of the opera, ‘Eugene Onegin’, in 1952, and it was this that inspired him to create a full-length adaptation, ‘Onegin’, for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965.
In Cranko’s ballet, the relationship which develops between the rather arrogant Onegin and the young and sensitive Tatyana is portrayed through a series of intensely emotional and challenging pas deux - the most well-known being the dream (or mirror) sequence from the scene in which she composes a letter to Onegin. It is through these pas de deux that Tatyana matures from an innocent country girl into a sophisticated woman at the height of Saint Petersburg society.
John Cranko - whose choreography for ‘Onegin’ includes folk, modern, ballroom and acrobatic dance forms - initially studied ballet at the University of Cape Town, under Dulcie Howes. It was there that he choreographed his first ballet, to Stravinsky’s Suite from ‘The Soldier’s Tale’. He moved to London in 1946, continuing his studies with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, but - having created what's described as a "sensational" work to Debussy’s 'Children’s Corner' for the Company in 1947 - he decided, two years later, to concentrate solely on choreography.
Amongst his most successful works were the comic ballet, ‘Pineapple Poll’, which premiered at The Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1951, ‘La Belle Hélène’ for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1955, and his first full-length work, ‘The Prince of the Pagodas’, for The Royal Ballet, in 1957. In 1961 John Cranko was appointed director of the Stuttgart Ballet, where - amongst other works - he created ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘Carmen’, ‘Poéme de l’Extase’ and ‘Traces’.
Cranko commissioned Kurt-Heinz Stolze to arrange Tchaikovsky’s music for ‘Onegin’. Drawing mainly on a series of piano pieces, ‘The Seasons’ - which Tchaikovsky had composed a couple of years prior to writing the score for the opera - Stolze deliberately avoided any of the music from the opera. Instead, in addition to the 'Seasons' pieces, he used themes from Tchaikovsky’s opera, ‘Cherevichki’ (‘The Tsarina’s Slippers’), and - for Onegin’s punishing farewell - the second half of his symphonic fantasia, ‘Francesca da Rimini’.
The Royal Ballet’s Sarah Lamb talks about ‘Onegin’ in this video clip.
Tchaikovsky’s motivation for creating the opera, ‘Eugene Onegin’, came in May 1877, during a conversation with some friends after the failure of ‘Swan Lake’ in Moscow. His libretto, however, was almost unrecognisable to those Russians who revered Pushkin’s novel, since Tchaikovsky avoided a straight adaptation, and placed the focus of his opera on the fate of Tatyana Larina. Initially it wasn’t favourably accepted by Russian audiences, but it was well received in other countries - where Pushkin’s work was less well known - and since its premiere in London in 1892, it has maintained its popularity in the opera repertoire.
Director of The Royal Opera, Kasper Holten, makes his Company directorial debut in this production of ‘Eugene Onegin’. Mr Holten was artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera from 2000 to 2011, during which time he headed the opening of the new opera house in Copenhagen in 2005. He has directed more than 60 productions of opera, drama, operetta and musicals in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, as well as in France, Austria, the United States, Russia, Latvia and Iceland. He took up the role of Director of Opera at Covent Garden in the autumn of 2011.
In selecting ‘Eugene Onegin’, Kasper Holten says that he chose an opera very close to his heart, and that it’s special because it’s about real people with whom we can all identify. “It gives ‘Onegin' a very special fragility, yet passionate quality, and that’s what I hopefully want to bring out in the production. It’s very important,” he adds, “that Tchaikovsky didn’t want this to be a grand opera. It needs to have a very direct emotional communication with the audience, and if I can’t make the audience cry .... make the audience be in love again, then I’ve somehow failed.”
Watch a video clip of Kasper Holten talking about his love for ‘Eugene Onegin’ and what makes it special.
Follow this link to watch a trailer of the opera.
The Royal Ballet’s performance of ‘Onegin’ runs at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from January 19 to February 8, and the Royal Opera’s production of ‘Eugene Onegin’ at the Royal Opera House from February 4 to February 20.
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