Palais Garnier, Paris, France, February 9-March 7, 2018
Many balletomanes (rightly) worship “Onegin” but few of them have read the eponymous novel by Pushkin, a founding father of modern literature in Russia. Yet, the book and ballet are closely intertwined, both in text and steps. Prey to mal du siècle, Onegin is said to cast “a mournful gaze” on the “dreary stage” at a ballet performance. He yawns and leaves. In hindsight, isn’t it ironic, given that Cranko’s masterpiece has the opposite effect on the audience? The ballet arouses passions, whether positive or negative. Some dismiss it as an offence to the inner realm of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky—Balanchine was one of those staunch critics—but the choreo-drama “Onegin” is anything but boring.
Amusingly too, Onegin happens to speak French, as was customary in those days. An addition to the repertoire in 2009 was logical, so that the Opéra de Paris could bring Onegin’s French voice to life on the Palais Garnier stage. Back then, it gave Isabelle Ciaravola her once-in-a-lifetime role, a half-Russian half-French Tatiana of unrivaled intensity. Since she retired in 2014, her legacy has remained unclaimed within the company. The 2018 run was quite interesting, still, with rosebuds coming into flowers in major roles. But it failed to revive the fireworks of the past.
Laura Hecquet and Sae Eun Park made their very debuts as Tatiana this year, with mixed interpretations. A long-limbed dancer of Balanchinian proportions, Hecquet was the only étoile appointed by Benjamin Millepied in 2015. There is more than meets the eye, though: Hecquet is a pure exponent of the French school. Hers is a clean technique, enhanced by a romantic sense of artistry. On paper, she was a natural Tatiana, although she lacks the lyrical quality that is the heroin’s signature worldwide. Her self-restraint was welcome in the third, St. Petersburg-located act but in the younger Tatiana days, it chased the emotional roller coaster in the shade. Indeed, Hecquet’s Tatiana was no frightened virgin coming from the backwoods. The first time Onegin appeared at her back, Hecquet ran to her mother, her face illuminated by a serene smile, asking for her approval when many girls look as though escaping the big bad wolf. The poised port de tête never vanished, even in the final pas de deux. She opted for sense, rather than sensibility, and refused to let go of herself. Stéphane Bullion provided rich material for her but his powerful stoicism often turned bleak. Such rendition was far too polite. There was a melodramatic high note, though, as Hecquet exposed her clasped wrists to the audience in the very last seconds, as if blood was seeping from them.
By contrast, Park proved a dynamic character, albeit uneven, the lean silhouette filled by a growing presence as the ballet progressed. The naïve bookworm ended up being in love to the point of madness, in an abrupt crescendo. Technique is a walk in the park to the 28 year-old soloist and she embraced the teenage Acts 1 and 2 with her light, airy phrasing, which made up for her unreadable face. But the final scene, in which, she tried to resist Onegin’s tempestuous desire, allowed her to let her hair down for once. Although she did choose sense, out of duty, her Tatiana was torn by a dormant sensibility, dangerously lurking below the surface. Park’s epiphany as a sensual dancer in the last act owes much to Hugo Marchand’s murky grip on her. Few dancers his age are such inspiring, mature, partners. He had a thawing effect on Park’s secretive nature.
Marchand indeed had a subtle approach to Onegin, matching Park’s aloof Tatiana. He walked by people, numb to the world outside, as if a bit-part player of his own life. It’s hard not to notice him, though, his impressive physique and spectacular dancing being jaw-dropping. It’s no wonder why Tatiana Larina falls for him. Marchand’s debuts came near to the stature of Audric Bézard but couldn’t match the latter’s magnetic aura.
It’s hard to review “Onegin” without a few words on the tender Olga and Lenski. Léonore Baulac (the company’s ingénue) and Germain Louvet (Mister Prince Charming), two étoiles in their prime, made a sparkling partnership, their sunlit dazzle setting the right tone. Much awaited were Paul Marque’s first steps as Lensky. He made a strong impression in the moonlight variation but he lacked the glint of poetry that the role requires. At his side, Marion Barbeau, a featherlight sujet, proved every inch the perfect foolish, provincial Olga; a worthy counterpoint to Laura Hecquet’s refined Tatiana.
Eugene Onegin is famously untranslatable. The spellbinding beauty of the ballet goes beyond words as well. John Cranko, Jurgen Rose, Kurt-Heinz Stolze and Tchaikovsky must be praised for that. Yes, it is West-focused but it gives haunting flashes of the mysterious “Slavic soul.”
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