La Scala's Onegin features extraordinary dancers

Choreographer, John Cranko
Music, Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Teatro La Scala
Until October 18

Like all the great opera and ballet houses, La Scala offers backstage tours of the building but, when you are being hosted by Francesco Ventriglia, the former artistic director of The Royal New Zealand Ballet to see a performance of the ballet Onegin you get a rather different tour.

Ventriglia has spent much of his life at the famous opera house, having started his career at the age of 11 at La Scala ballet school. He seems to know everyone. Sitting outside the La Scala café on Piazza La Scala he is greeted by dozens of people coming and going from the building – dancers, teachers, administrators, choreographers and even the ballet director, Frederic Olivier.

Ventriglia’ s backstage tour was extraordinary, As the rounds of applause started at the end of the performance we were whisked to the side of the stage while the dancers were taking their final curtain calls and then introduced to the two principals, Marienela Nunez (Tatiana) and Robert Bolle (Onegin) who is one of the great superstars of ballet today. When he stepped on to the stage, before he even took a step, he was given a rousing ovation.

Onegin tells of Tatiana, a young book-loving woman living in the provinces with romantic dreams. Her sister’s fiancé, Lensky, introduces her to the world-weary, urbane Onegin with whom she is captivated. She writes him a letter expressing her love for him but, at the party the next evening, the bored and cynical Onegin rips up her letter in front of her.

He proceeds to dance and flirt with Tatiana’s sister, Olga, to irritate the company and infuriate Lensky, who challenges him to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky and flees.

Years later Onegin has returned to find Tatiana married to Prince Gremin.  Onegin realises the mistake he made in rejecting Tatiana and delivers her a letter expressing his love. She invites him to her chamber where she tears up his letter and, though she still feels emotionally connected to him, orders him to leave her life.

Dancing the role of Tatiana Marianela, Nunez portrayed both the young vulnerable girl and as the older self-assured woman.  She didn’t just convey her emotional states through dance, she displayed great acting ability, her every movement and facial expression adding to the creation of a vivid character. In the final act where she expresses love for her husband, the Prince, as well as her ambivalent feelings for Onegin, she showed a deep understanding of a woman conflicted between noble love and ecstatic passion

Her displays of love ranged from the early pas de deux with Onegin, which conveyed adolescent infatuation, through the dreamy Mirror Dance where she dances with an intense passion, then the final ball sequence where she and the Prince dance with a romantic elegance and then her final dance with Onegin where she alternates between rejecting him and being captivated by him.

As the self-centred Onegin, Roberto Bolle was extraordinary, his dancing clean, precise and assured. He is 41 but dances with the athleticism of a twenty-one-year-old. His dancing was initially taut and tight, conveying his arrogance and superiority but in the Mirror Dance and the final pas de deux there was a fluidity which spoke of an intense sensuality. His expression of boredom when he first appeared and his insouciance when he played cards by himself were clever acting devices which he incorporated into to his astute dancing.

Alessandra Vassalo as the flirtatious Olga, brought a carefree enthusiasm to the role while Mick Zeni, as Tatiana’s husband, Prince Gremlin was perfectly nuanced, expressing the pure and conventional love which Tatiana had settled for, the antitheses of what Onegin offered.

The superbly agile Timofej Andrijashenko’s performance as  Lensky ranged from the cheerful and effervescent when he danced with Olga and Tatiana through to the contemplative and soulful when he contemplates his likely death.

As well as the great dancing from the principals, there was the corps de ballet, which provided splendid massed pas de deux, extraordinary groupings and vibrant shimmering movement, all performed with effortless grace.

The sets, a Russian rural setting for the first act and then alternating lavish ballrooms and dark bedrooms provided just the right environments for the dancers, along with the magnificent Tchaikovsky played by the Orchestra of La Scala under the direction of Felix Korobov.

The 2018 ballet programme at La Scala:

Goldberg Variations, January 5 – March 22;  Mahler 10 / Petite Mort / Bolero, March 10 – April 7;  Le Corsaire, April 20 – May 17;  Strata Nureyev, May 25-29;  Don Quixote, July  10-18; and Manon, October 17- November 2.

The 2018 opera programme at La Scala:

Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, February 8 – March 4;  Glick, Orpheus and Eurydice, February 24–March 17;  Donizetti, Don Pasquale, April 3–May 4;  Zandonai, Francesca da Rimini, April 13–May 15;  Verdi,  Aida, May 8–June 3;  Schubert, Fierrabras, June 5-30;  Beethoven, Fidelio, June 18-July 7;  Bellini, The Pirate, June 29–July 29; and Cherbini,  Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, September 1.