San Francisco Ballet has opened its 2012 season with a brilliant U.S. premiere of John Cranko's revised 1967 "Onegin."
It’s exceptional in that it even surpasses the company's recent all-around excellence. Marvelous principal dancers, a superb corps de ballet, Martin West conducting the ballet orchestra on high-decibel fire – they all came together.
Opening night on Friday might have seemed a splurge, with Vitor Luiz's magnetic Onegin, Maria Kochetkova's lyrical Tatiana, Clara Blanco’s vibrant Olga and Gennadi Nedvigin's stunning Lensky. (Note: Blanco recently has been promoted to company soloist.)
Yet additional performances to follow also feature casts of the highest promise: Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan on Wednesday, Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba on Thursday, Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin Cintas on Friday; Kochetkova and Luiz return on Tuesday.
The production, staged by Jane Bourne and Stuttgart Ballet's Reid Anderson, with Santo Loquasto's sets, includes some unsteady birch trees and fine costumes, although the sensationally dancing village boys and girls might have looked better if they didn’t wear identical uniforms.
How does "Onegin" work on the ballet stage? It's a tremendou
s challenge. Alexander Pushkin's 1832 novel in verse about thwarted love and challenged honor is such a great work that it triumphs even in translations to other languages and certainly as the material for Tchaikovsky's opera.
But to dance it? Cranko's genius manages the task almost completely. The letter scene, for example – easy to speak or sing, but dancing? – has a simple but effective device of Onegin stepping out of the mirror when Tatiana is gazing at herself; the two engage in a passionate pas de deux, clearly in her dream.
The final scene, gorgeously danced by Luiz and Kochetkova, makes sense as she almost gives in to his belated and ardent suit, but orders him to leave.
One false note – whether due to Cranko's dance or Bourne's staging is not clear – comes when Onegin rejects Tatiana. Granted, without text, it's difficult to convey Onegin's patronizing arrogance. But translating it to rough physicality – his pushing her away forcefully – is just not Pushkin or likely behavior in 19th-century Russia.
Still, otherwise the production is of Ivory soap purity, and it floats beautifully.
The music for the ballet is fascinating. Cranko and arranger-orchestrator Kurt-Heinz Stolze chose not to use Tchaikovsky's opera or ballet works, but cobbled together numerous orchestral works by dear old Peter Ilyich that serve the dance well.
The only time the opera music was acutely missed was during the the mighty Polonaise in the ballroom scene. Yet it was offset by youthful Pascal Molat dancing the role of the elderly Prince Gremin (to whom Tatiana remains faithful), and part of the grand evening.
Presented by San Francisco Ballet
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. today, Thursday-Friday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: $36 to $285
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org