Onegin | Opera Theatre (Pic: Branco Gaica)

The story of Yevgeny (Eugene) Onegin started, of course, with master-poet Alexander Pushkin’s verse-novel (389 stanzas, no less of iambic tetrameter; so-called Onegin stanzas, or Pushkin sonnet), a classic of Russian literature which began to be serialised in 1825. Onegin, the character, has since served as a ‘role model’ for numerous Russian men of fiction.

Perhaps Pushkin’s virtuosity (which, as would-be narrator, he self-deprecatingly escrowed as ‘the careless fruit of playful thought’), the clarity and simplicity of his narrative, not to mention the rich complexity of his characters are at least part of the reason the ballet of same is so cohesive and coherent. The social milieu of the book is painted so vividly that it’s easy fro the drama, passion and romance of the ballet to emerge, wordlessly. John Cranko, who choreographed it, hasn’t had, by any means, an easy task. Nonetheless, Pushkin has served his cause, as has the score by Tchaikovsky (in the main excerpted from The Seasons), arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze.

It might be seen as perverse that Cranko chose not to draw upon Tchaikovsky’s opera, Onegin. Rather, he opted for relatively obscure (if deeply romantic and elegiacally, transportingly beautiful) piano works, along with themes from Cherevichki and the symphonic Francesca da Rimini.

Beyond, Puhkin and Tchaikovsky, however, the rest is down to Cranko’s own, very considerable, genius; one which was suitably recognised and embraced by the (then) Sadlers Wells (later, Royal) and Stuttgart ballets. Cranko’s own life, regrettably, proved to be tragic, inasmuch as he died at 45, on a trans-Atlantic flight.

In any case, there could be no better, more sublime ballet than this to grace the Sydney Opera House stage in homage to the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary. Jurgen Rose’s design, the physical manifestations of with have been kindly furnished by the Royal Swedish Opera and Det Kongellige Theater, is a tantalisingly measured springboard for the work. Period settings can so easily be overwrought but, despite, a deeply pleasing aesthetic, the sets never seek to nor succeed in overwhelming the ballet itself. Moreover, the graduated palette of pastels exhibits the most exquisite colour-balance, taste and sophistication. Devious optics ensure we are deluded into observing false perspectives and dimensionality.

St Petersburg, circa 1820. In reality, this was the time immediately before a great flood (it wasn’t uncommon for the Neva delta to overflow, until just last year, when a major dam was finaly completed), but also before Russia joined hands and forces with Austria and Prussia to authorise 100,000 French troops to invade Spain to re-establish conservatism there. Times were tense and perhaps Pushkin had an intention to reflect the dark cloud of war and revolution that hung over Europe, as a means to instilling a mood of tragedy.

Despite the foreboding shadow that hovers, life in Madame Larina’s garden seems blissful and peaceful when Lensky arrives with a friend in tow. The friend is Onegin who’s come to the countryside to escape a Petersburg, that has come to stifle him. That anyone could be bored by such a resplendent city is ripe for incredulity, but there you have it. Tatiana is about to have a birthday and while preparations surround her, she succumbs to the exotic charms, as she perceives them, of Onegin. But her romantic fervour is unrequited. Onegin, swathed luxuriantly in his own arrogance, couldn’t care less, seeing her as nothing but an ignorant inhabitant of a bucolic idyll. Adam Bull is tremendous in this role, with an upright carriage that says it all. Through the articulate medium of Cranko’s choreography, he communicates his character and the story almost as vividly as Pushkin. Thus, we’ve a palpable sense of Onegin’s cruelty: he appears to cultivate Tatiana’s devotion, while knowing he has not the slightest intention of rewarding it. He’s a cad. Or, in modern parlance, a bastard. And, as we all know, every woman loves a bastard.

Amber Scott is Tatiana and, if Bull has managed the outwardly careless quintessence of Onegin, Scott is as sweet, pure, pretty and fragrant as the chamomile flowers that flourish in and around Russia. Kevin Jackson’s Lensky wears a white hat, too; good, in constant, vying conflict with Onegin’s brooding. But, of course, Onegin isn’t the product of a Grimm fairytale, Aesop fable, or other two-dimensional parable, but a development (as Valerie Lawson explores in her essay The Man In Black) of the Byronic ‘hero’, approximate to Byron himself, who his long-suffering, jilted lover decried, famously, as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Lawson points to Pushkin’s rather direct allusion to Onegin’s backstory, which suggests he had been viciously pursued by the dreaded black dog of depression.

These, more subtle aspects of personality, you’d think, would be almost impossible to relate through dance-theatre alone, yet we are able to intuit even this part of Onegin’s personality profile, thanks to the almost inestimable finesse, in dance and demeanour, of Bull, via Cranko.

I could wax lyrically and effortlessly about Leanne Stojmenov’s Olga, Brett Simon’s Prince Gremin, Katie Panoff’s Larina and Olga Tamara’s nurse — or indeed the corps de ballet, which features amongst it a surfeit of abundantly characterful turns — were it not for the truly surpassing performances of the aforementioned principals. They tend, inevitably, to overshadow. Neither is it less than typical for me to lavish praise upon the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra but, under the self-assured baton of the wonderful Nicolette Fraillon, it seemed to shine as, or more, brightly than ever.

It’s Russian, so it’s bound to end in tears. But given a production of this quality, there’ll be tears of jubilation, too. Onegin is one of the best endorsements for ballet per se you’ll ever see and one which, I’m sure, will leave you, as me, with an unswerving conviction that, after only 50 years, the Australian Ballet gives no quarter to any company. Anywhere.

Cranko’s choreography (which has, on the one hand, dancers floating like butterflies with gravity-defying lifts and, on the other, stinging like bees, especially in the impassioned pas de deux), bolstered by Tchaikovksy’s emotive score, propels the principals to dizzying, intercontinental heights of excellence. It transcends the merely technical and reaches deep down into their very hearts and souls.

The details: Onegin plays five more performances at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 21. The show opens at Melbourne’s State Theatre for 13 performances from June 23. Tickets on the company website.

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