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The Seducer Seduced

Teatro alla Scala
09/14/2022 -  & September 15, 17*, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 2022
John Cranko (choreography), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (music, arr. & orch. Kurt‑Heinz Stolze)
Marco Agostino/Timofej Andrijashenko/Roberto Bolle*/Gabriele Corrado/Nicola del Freo (Onegin), Claudio Coviello/Nicola del Freo*/Mattia Semperboni/Navrin Turnbull (Lenskij), Francesca Podini*/Luana Saullo (The Widow Larina), Martina Arduino/Nicoletta Manni/Alice Mariani/Marianela Nunez*/Vittoria Valerio (Tatiana), Martina Arduino*/Caterina Bianchi/Agnese Di Clemente/Alessandra Vassallo (Olga), Serena Sarnataro/Giuseppina Zeverino* (The Nurse), Edoardo Caporaletti/Gabriele Corrado*/Gioacchino Starace (Prince Gremin), Corpo di Ballo del Teatro alla Scala
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Felix Korobov (conductor)
Lorenzo Mariani (stage director), Pier Luigi Samaritani (sets, costumes), Roberta Guidi di Bagno (costumes), Steen Bjarke/Birgit Deharde (light designer)

(© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano/Teatro alla Scala)

Premiered in 1965 in Stuttgart and created by South African choreographer John Cranko, the ballet follows exactly the action as it occurs in Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, scene by scene. Oddly, it doesn’t use a single note from the opera. This may seem frustrating, as Tchaikovsky’s operatic repertoire is unfailingly, irresistibly lyrical. It’s also, fittingly, ballabile, almost made for dancing. However, Cranko was wise not to use the opera’s music, as it would have relegated the ballet to being a mere curiosity, being derivative of the opera. Instead, it’s a fascinating stand‑alone work with much merit.

Instead, Cranko chose various less familiar works by Tchaikovsky and had them arranged and orchestrated by a certain Kurt‑Heinz Stolze. The most recognizable is the second theme from Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. Other sources are the piano cycle The Seasons, the opera The Caprices of Oxana and Romeo and Juliet. The result is a resounding success: original dance music that faithfully captures the spirit of the opera.

The sets in the first scene of the first act looked like a bucolic painting by Watteau or Fragonard. A sense of perspective made Mme Larina’s country estate look immense. The widow Larina and her two daughters, Tatiana and Olga, are seated in the garden preparing for the former’s birthday. Olga’s fiancé, the poet Lensky, arrives with his friend, Onegin, a blasé dandy visiting the countryside in search of a reprieve from his ennui. The two men arrive while the romantic Tatiana and her sister are playing a game with a mirror where whoever looks into the mirror sees his or her beloved. The reflection of Onegin appears in Tatiana’s mirror. Romantic Tatiana is immediately lovestruck, despite Onegin’s aloof and supercilious demeanour.

In contrast to Lensky and Olga’s sweet and proper pas de deux, Onegin and Tatiana’s stroll through the garden could be described as a pas de paon (peacock), with Onegin more self‑absorbed than attending to his partner. His steps are stiff and aloof. When Tatiana expects to be held and swirled, Onegin does a dazzling solo jump. Cranko’s trademark humour evolves into this unusual pas de deux.

The second scene is in Tatiana’s bedroom, where the pensive Tatiana is thinking of the handsome dandy from Saint Petersburg. Her bed is on one side, a writing desk is on the other, and a huge mirror (or more likely a window) is in the centre. Cranko has the brilliant idea of Tatiana dreaming up Onegin through the mirror/window, with whom she dances a pas de deux. This dance with the Onegin of her imagination is vastly different from that it the previous scene: intimate, affectionate, and passionate. This imaginary Onegin is the one she falls in love with. I believe it was Lawrence Durrell who had described infatuation as not falling in love with an actual person, but falling in love with an often false impression of a person, sometimes due to the image of one’s self seen in the beloved’s eyes. The latter is not the case, but the former is. The lover in the mirror evoked E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novellas, giving a certain element of the fantastic or supernatural, a key element of Romanticism. Dreaming up such a scene in lieu of Tatiana’s Letter scene in the opera is a clever adaptation to the medium of dance, given the absence of lyrics to describe Tatiana’s outpouring of young love.

The setting for Tatiana’s birthday scene was the essence of countryside elegance, more comfortable and sober than grand. Cranko’s humour was expressed in the elderly provincial gentry’s obsequiousness and awkward steps. Whereas Lensky repeats his elegant and proper steps with Olga, Onegin has the same anguished, detached steps as in his Act I pas de deux with Tatiana. He reprimands her for her outburst of adolescent love, returns and tears up her letter. Irked by her tears, he channels his anger into teasing his friend Lensky by flirting with Tatiana’s sister Olga, provoking his anger and causing Lensky to challenge him to a duel.

The duel scene, set only in black and white, is possibly more effective than that of the opera; less solemn and more eerily suspenseful. No Zaretsky and Guillot, arbiters of the duel, in this ballet adaptation. The absence of minor characters in this scene increases the level of tension. A soulful Lensky laments his friend’s disloyalty and Olga’s fickleness set to music reminiscent of his aria from the opera, “Kuda, kuda, kuda vi udalilis.” Two tragic figures dressed in black dance around Lensky and later Onegin. They may be the Furies, or a stylized version of Onegin’s regret and Lensky’s anger. When they embrace Lensky, one senses his demise, which happens soon after.

Back from his wandering in Europe, a disillusioned Onegin is a guest at a ball at Prince Gremin’s palace. It’s Imperial Russia in all its glory, but no clutter, élégance oblige. In lieu of Prince Gremin’s aria in the opera, “Lyubvi vsye vozrasti pokorni,” marital bliss is expressed in a pas de deux between Gremin and Tatiana, characterized by poise and tenderness. The moment he recognizes Tatiana as Prince Gremin’s young wife, a shattered Onegin sits down, his back to the dancing couple. When he stands up, attempting but failing to approach Tatiana, his seat is taken in what is clearly an allegorical game of musical chairs: he is out of step and lost. The dissonant hesitant steps of his solo reveal his state of mind. In the opera’s final scene, Onegin has sent Tatiana a letter expressing his love and regret for the foolish rejection years before. He manages to sneak into Tatiana’s boudoir, a much warmer setting than her room as a young woman. A bright ray of light, a kind of guarding light, seeps through an unseen side window. An imploring Onegin attempts to hold a reserved Tatiana in his arms. His steps falter. He performs much of the final pas de deux frequently lowering himself below Tatiana as if imploring or submitting. As in the opera, the music is a reprise of that used in the first act’s Letter scene, but with a frenzied rhythm. As Onegin previously tore up her letter, Tatiana now tears up his, though now in movements that express both trepidation and hesitation.

A better cast could not be imagined than the one La Scala presented. Both lead dancers were among the world’s stars of ballet. Born in Argentina, Marianela Nunez has been the première danseuse at the Royal Ballet for several years. Roberto Bolle is possibly today’s most famous male ballet dancer. Though this work doesn’t present the challenges of a Don Quixote with dazzling jumps and spins, the technique of both lead dancers was impeccable. Moreover, this more recently created work allowed Nunez and Bolle a degree of expressiveness and interpretation that few classical ballets do. Their interplay was stunningly unforgettable.

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