Perspectives

Me neither, I love you

Onegin and Tatiana, passionately — By Isabelle Calabre

Lyricism, theatricality, a duel, unrequited love… All the ingredients are united to make Onéguine one of the most dramatic works in the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet. From the novel to the ballet, John Cranko fans the flames of both the trivial and the sublime…


Few dramas are as ordinary as the plot of Onegin. What could be more banal, indeed, than unrequited love? What could be more common than a reversal of feelings leading to the adoration of the object once spurned? Few situations, however, are so intrinsically tragic. This dramatic intensity stems first of all from the personalities of the two protagonists, now become emblematic figures of unrequited passion. Firstly, Onegin, whom one could almost qualify as an anti-hero, so far does his initial behaviour make him appear as an odious creature. Then Tatiana who, from her very first appearance, is elevated well above the simple figure of the sentimental young girl - leaving that role to her sister, Olga – to attain the sublime in love’s most heart breaking accents. The dramatic strength of the plot, however, would be diminished if John Cranko, adapting Pushkin’s verse-novel in Tchaikovsky’s wake, had not taken care to symmetrically balance the action around two key scenes, whose brilliance and impact radiate throughout the entire work.

Let us remind ourselves, in a few words, of the plot of this ballet: whilst her sister, Olga, is engaged to the poet, Vladimir Lenski, Tatiana falls hopelessly in love with a friend of the latter, the dandy Eugene Onegin. The young girl writes him a passionate letter and imagines their next meeting in a tender pas de deux. But when, during a ball, she sees Onegin again, he is cold and distant towards her. Worse still, he tears up her letter before her very eyes and begins to flirt openly with her sister. By doing so, he arouses the anger of his friend Lenski who challenges him to a duel. The poet dies from a gunshot wound inflicted by Onegin who flees. Ten years later, on his return to Saint Petersburg, Onegin goes to a ball and encounters Tatiana, who has since married Prince Gremin. In a state of turmoil, he realises that he has ruined his life and writes to the young woman asking to see her again. Alone with her at her home, he confesses his love. She, in return, admits that her feelings have not changed but, out of pride, tears up the letter from Onegin who takes his leave in despair.

Laura Hecquet (Tatiana) et Stéphane Bullion (Eugène Onéguine) en répétition, Opéra national de Paris, 2018
Laura Hecquet (Tatiana) et Stéphane Bullion (Eugène Onéguine) en répétition, Opéra national de Paris, 2018 © Julien Benhamou / OnP

One immediately sees the parallel between Act I Scene 2, in which Tatiana declares her love in a dream to a willing Onegin, and its mirror image, the scene in the third act that concludes the ballet, in which the young woman appears to surrender to Onegin’s belated love before remembering her position and sending him away. The first of these scenes, ardent, superb, is a reciprocal declaration of love. It wallows in the languorous atmosphere of shared passion. Cranko has multiplied with virtuosity portées and abandonment to sensuality, linking the two protagonists by an invisible thread constantly relayed by their eyes and hands. In doing so, he creates a striking contrast with their initial encounter in Scene 1 during which Onegin, as if absent, displayed a provocative indifference and seemed, in spite of himself, to submit to a variation right before Tatiana’s eyes, without however meeting her gaze. Their final encounter in Act III is very different. After a ball scene constructed as an echo to that of Act II, focused on Tatiana, regal and haughty towards a humble and repentant Onegin, the two lovers are reunited in the privacy of a room similar to that in which the young girl once dreamed of love. But in contrast to the fluidity that clearly suffused their first love duet, the pas de deux of their reunion is no more than a series of manoeuvres back and forth, abrupt and tragic, during which their bodies seem to touch only to repel each other. Whilst Onegin literally falls at the feet of Princess Gremin, she surrenders to his embrace only under the compulsion of the feelings she is repressing. As they sink repeatedly to the floor, with a sound of defeat – she bent beneath him on the ground, he crawling after her on his knees – they condemn in advance the sham soaring flight of the final grand portée. A far cry from the illusory happiness of Act I, passion is experienced through conflict and non-communication.

To accentuate this oppressive feeling of a happiness which unceasingly eludes them, Cranko tightens the action to the point of austerity. The secondary characters, like Madame Larina, the mother of the two young ladies, or even Prince Gremin, are merely the impotent witnesses of the tragedy of four people, and more particularly of two, that reposes entirely on the inner feelings of the protagonists. Significant in this light is the choreographer’s decision not to use the score of Tchaikovsky’s opera. Rather than abandoning himself to a composition obeying its own stylistic rules, John Cranko preferred to commission from Kurt-Heinz Stolze a re-orchestration of different scores by the same composer moulded to his own structure. Extracts from “Seasons”, subtle piano pieces, accompany the successive moods of the soloists, whilst the overture to Romeo and Juliet and the symphonic poem Francesca de Rimini, espouse the grand pas de deux in the first and third acts. The “tonality of chamber music”, to quote the words of Stolze himself, which characterises the ballet, is the subtle counterpart to the fluctuations that agitate the souls of the heroes. In keeping with his intimate vision of the drama, Cranko has therefore created a purely emotional musical climate, the mainsprings of which are those of the heart only.

Florian Magnenet (le prince Grémine) et Dorothée Gilbert (Tatiana) en répétition, Opéra national de Paris, 2018
Florian Magnenet (le prince Grémine) et Dorothée Gilbert (Tatiana) en répétition, Opéra national de Paris, 2018 © Julien Benhamou / OnP

To this re-centred plot and the score that accompanies it, John Cranko has added two essential trump cards which, in a way, constitute his artistic signature: his keen sense of drama and a choreography endlessly suffused with a veritable emotional flux: two qualities with which all his ballets are stamped and which transform this story of a failed love affair into an archetypal tale of passion. Present in every scene, Tatiana is a truly theatrical character, whose every thought and feeling we follow. Leaving aside the codified vocabulary of classical ballet, Cranko has invented a vibrant language of gestures for her, particularly in the ball scene in Act II. He who is capable, in his pas de deux, of the greatest acrobatic complexity, succeeds in making his heroine talk even when she is not dancing, with a furtive look or a simple, slight movement of the hand. This is great art, even more impressive than his perilous soaring flights. In gauging the fire that burns within the young girl, Cranko demonstrates once again his capacity to empathise and translate the emotional states of his characters, particularly female characters.

Indeed, Tatiana, in contradiction with the title of the ballet and even Pushkin’s novel, is the real heroine of the drama. From the very first scene, in which, with emotional turmoil, she meets Onegin’s eyes in a mirror, to the last, dramatic scene marking their final separation, she never ceases to be consumed before our eyes, victim of a doubly impossible love – first of all unrequited, then adulterous and blameworthy, personifying to the level of crucifixion that emotional impasse known as passion, a tragic embodiment of the celebrated phrase: “There is no such thing as happy love”.

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