Saturday, 21 February 2015

Onegin: the most enjoyable performance that I have seen at the House since Sibley and Dowell

When I was young I practically lived at Covent Garden. I was a Young Friend which meant that I got lots of ticket vouchers. I saw all the greats - Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell, Merle Park, David Wall, Lynn Seymour, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn - and on two occasions Robert Helpmann and Fred Ashton. I loved the House with its all pervading smell of mouldering vegetation. The flunkies who presented enormous bouquets to the ballerinas. The littering of the floor with cut flowers thrown by zealous members of the audience. And above all the ballets. Particularly those that are not performed so much nowadays such as Monotones, Jazz Calendar and, above all, Enigma Variations with Sibley as the adorable Dorabella.

I went to graduate school in America and while I was away the fruit and veg market moved to Nine Elms. When I came back the smell of vegetables that had lingered for a while began to disperse.  Fewer and fewer people threw flowers onto the stage. Then at the end of the 1990s the House closed for renovation. When it re-opened everything had changed. Though I admired Bull, Bussell and Guillem I never took to them in the way I did to Sibley, Seymour and Fonteyn. Though the Royal Ballet's performances were as polished as ever they somehow lacked charm. I fell out of love with the Royal Ballet and Covent Garden and transferred my affection to other companies like Northern Ballet, Scottish Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and most recently the Dutch National Ballet.

Until last Monday night. That night I saw something wonderful. Cranko's Onegin danced by Matthew Golding in the title role, Natalia Osipova as Tatiana, Matthew Ball as Lensky and Bennet Gartside as Prince Gremin. It was quite simply the most enjoyable performance by the Royal Ballet that I had seen since the days of  Sibley and Dowell. It was like meeting an old friend after an absence of years. I also found for the first time something to like in the renovated House. I discovered the terrace next to the amphitheatre bar where I sipped my coffee while reflecting on what I had witnessed in the first act. That terrace did not exist before the renovation. Even though it was wet and chilly last Monday night it was great to step out above the street lamps and pedestrians.

But the main reason I enjoyed the evening so much was that the choreography was by Cranko - my favourite choreographer of all time. Much more than Macmillan.  Even more than van Manen and Ashton. Cranko understood and interpreted music in a way that produces a fluency that is instantly recognizable but hard to describe. I see similar fluency in the work of two young choreographers of the present, Ernst Meisner in the Netherlands and our own Christopher Marney. He was also a great story teller with a sense of humour. All of those qualities are visible in my favourite Cranko work, The Taming of the Shrew. There will be more Cranko next month when the Chelmsford Ballet dance Pineapple Poll (see Chelmsford Ballet Company's Cast 31 Jan 2015).

Another reason why I enjoyed the evening was Osipova. I had admired her virtuosity when I saw her in Giselle last year and she displayed it again on Monday night, But she also showed her dramatic power. The ripping of Onegin's letter was thrilling. How the theatre erupted as the curtain fell around her as she stood proud in the centre of the stage at the end of the last act. Though this is the first season that Osipova has danced in Cranko's ballet she understood her character well. As she explains in the video above she had read Pushkin many times and learned a little more about the characters each time she read the story. Also, as a Russian, Pushkin is special to her.

Osipova was matched by Golding. Steely, amoral and ultimately foolish but somehow sexy - a bit like Austen's Darcy but without his good points. He breaks a young girl's heart on the day she should be happy. Then he shoots the inoffensive Lensky in a duel somehow getting away scot free.  Simply to be sent on his way by a married woman in the last act for such a first class blighter seems like getting off lightly to me.

For those who do not know the ballet there is a short synopsis on the Royal Opera House's website. Go to the Wikipedia entry on the book and the Ballet Bag's feature for more.  There are important roles for Onegin's friend Lensky and her eventual husband, Gremin. There is also some exciting dancing for the corps - particularly for the women who exited the garden in the first act with exuberant jetés on the arms of their partners. There is so much to absorb in this ballet - Rose's rich designs, Stolze's setting of Tchaikovsky's music - it is a work of which one can never tire.  Although pricey the programme with its notes on the choreography, music, Onegin's character and Cranko is invaluable in helping me absorb, digest and comprehend this multi-layered ballet.

The ballet is nearing the end of its run but there are still two more shows on the 27 Feb 2015 for which tickets are still available. If you can get to one of those performances then go

Other Reviews

Zoe Anderson Onegin, Royal Opera House, review: Vadim Muntagirov lifts this revival of John Cranko’s overwrought ballet 26 Jan 2015 The Independent
Debra Craine  Onegin at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 27 Jan 2015 The Times
Judith Mackrell Onegin review – riveting Osipova takes Royal Ballet to the brink of ragged hysteria 2 Feb 2015 The Guardian
Laura Thompson Onegin, Royal Ballet, review: 'an assured crowd-pleaser' 25 Jan 2015 The Telegraph


  1. Lovely review, I'll treasure that performance forever.

  2. ...but I am highly surprised you have left out mentioning the magnificent performance of Miss Yasmine Naghdi as "Olga". As Osipova's "sister" she was so well matched and her Act1 pd2 with Ball was simply stunning. The Onegin cast Osipova/Golding/Naghdi/Ball is a memorable one, Clement Crisp of the FT gave it 5 stars, and Miss Naghdi more than deserved to be mentioned in your review (I trust it was an oversight).

    1. You are right, Naghdi's performance as Olga was great. There was so much to see and absorb and one's senses can process only so much. I could and perhaps should have written so much more. My attention has been focused on the story and the interaction of the three men. Everyone danced well that night.