Onegin in Paris: spleen, love and regret

English Review –

Alessandro Bizzotto reviews two performances of Cranko’s moving classical romance

Hard to say what Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin suffers from. His unhappiness looks so acute that it is best thought of as a kind of affliction. Several scholars speak of a Byronic disease, spleen, which Russians call chandra (due to the failure of the Enlightenment’s expectations, after the Restoration in 1815?). Many describe it as Oneginism – Onegin’s own mental malady, his lack of interest in life.

This is probably the central element of Alexander Pushkin’s immortal novel. It must not be forgotten while watching John Cranko’s ballet adaptation, which is no doubt an audience favorite, a dazzling dance drama with a societal backdrop (the patriarchal early 19th-century Russian society) and a tragedy that sweeps away four characters – the bored aristocrat, the idealist poet and two sisters, both naïve yet different. Sumptuous Tchaikovsky’s music, a narrative strategy that crosscuts between two letters (the one Tatjana writes Eugene Onegin and the one he writes her) and a powerful sense of drama make “Onegin” a must to see. Only MacMillan’s “Mayerling” can successfully compete with it in matters of intensity and emotional power.

This ballet is brought on stage for the fourth time at the Paris Opera this season, with the original set and costumes created by German designer Jürgen Rose.

The ballet’s eponymous character plays a central role, of course. It demands the ability to portray boredom and existential ennui, love and remorse, and to convey immense depth of feeling, without looking merely unpleasant. First soloist Audric Bezard did not meet these demanding conditions. His Onegin lacks both the thwarted cleverness and the feeling of unexpressed discomfort that make the character so haughty but at the same time so appealing.

Stéphane Bullion and Laura Hecquet in ‘Onegin’ © Julien Benhamou

Dorothée Gilbert is a magnificent Tatjana. She shows off a sumptuous technique, and seems to have a perfect understanding of the story. Yet she often looks way too concentrate, way too focused on dancing impeccably so to be genuinely touching – her adamantine brilliance often eclipses the character’s vulnerability. She looked more sincerely involved in the drama when she had her debut in the role, almost nine years ago opposite José Martinez.

The show is therefore stolen by Muriel Zusperreguy, who is no less than brilliant as Olga. Extremely well partnered by Jérémy-Loup Quer, Zusperreguy gives Olga frivolousness without artifice – she is luminous and brisk and her technique is graceful and airy. It is proof of the caliber of her exquisite artistry the fact that is so difficult to separate her subtly sparkling yet wonderfully ambiguous performance from the nimbleness of her legs, the grace of her upper body, the neat way she tilts her head. She could have been an unforgettable Tatjana as well (she was the understudy for the role).

At times Quer seems to over-act, but his Act 1 pas de deux with Zusperreguy is one of the highlights of the night.

Muriel Zusperreguy and Jérémy-Loup Quer in ‘Onegin’ © Julien Benhamou

Pushkin’s suffering hero looks instead nearly perfectly embodied a couple of days later, when Stéphane Bullion dances the title role for the very first time. His dramatic nuance is impressively rendered; he is an imposing Onegin and his portrayal oozes dangerous charm. Particularly in Act 1, Bullion dances with shadowy detachment in the pursuit of something very subtle, with his smooth and nearly buttery pirouettes and tours en l’aire. In the duel scene, as he enters, black-coated and caustic, there is a real, terrifying frisson of tragedy. Bullion is unerringly true, the best Onegin I have seen in Paris so far (I still regret not to have seen Nicolas Le Riche).

Meanwhile Laura Hecquet plays Tatjana with delicate aesthetic details but, at the outset, it is hard for her to exteriorize the character’s feelings in order to make emotions wholly legible. She often looks too posh to be a smitten, little country girl. Hecquet, so, improves throughout the three acts. In Act 2, as Bullion tears up her love letter, she is frozen in shock. And in Act 3, aided by superb partnering from Bullion, Hecquet is a torrent of hard-won yearning – their last pas de deux resounds with painful and profound truth.

Young corps member Naïs Duboscq dances Olga with beguiling freshness. New First soloist Paul Marque, who would have only needed more pathos in his Act 2 variation, is Lensky, cruelly trapped in his futile, poetic dreams.