John Cranko’s ballet Onegin was brought to La Scala in 1993 as a vehicle for Carla Fracci with Rex Harrington in the title role. It wasn’t, however, Fracci’s first contact with the ballet. Her close ties with Cranko began before he became the director of the Stuttgart Ballet when she created Juliet in his production of Romeo and Juliet for La Scala; she was 21. The inimitable Marcia Haydée was the original Tatiana when Onegin was staged in Stuttgart in 1965, but Cranko first heard Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini, which he used as the music for the heart-breaking final duet, while at Fracci’s house in the early ‘60s. Tatiana was a role that she longed to dance, even though she had to wait until she was 56 before the opportunity arose.
The opening night Tatiana for this season’s run at La Scala was Marianela Nuñez, a dancer who has admired Fracci since she was a child, and there was a warm greeting between the two after the curtain came down on the night Fracci was in the audience [see bottom of post].
Nuñez is beautiful in this role, and while her suitability for the last act is a given, she offers a satisfyingly credible and nuanced performance as the young Tatiana too – crunching up her dress with a hand when she feels awkward, shyly giving Onegin Princess Di looks, being simple and ingenuous while avoiding being silly and gullible. Her dancing is a marvel, with meticulous attention to the underlying expression of each placement of her foot, of every position of her hands, yet there is complete freedom and fearlessness in the athletic pas de deux with Onegin – poise giving way to passion.
Pier Luigi Samaritani, who is well-known for designing Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère for the American Ballet Theatre, designed this production for La Scala. Onegin was maybe his last project as he died just a year later at 51. However, the sets don’t seem to have come from a fifty-year-old in the 1990s as they creak under the weight of his old-fashioned approach, with lots of questionable perspective too. Roberta Guidi Di Bagno is credited as co-designing the fine costumes, and I would guess that most of the work is hers. The most striking differences with Jürgen Rose’s 1960’s designs are Titania’s ball dress for her duet with Gremin, which is black, not red, and her dress for the final scene which is royal blue. Both choices subtly tell their own story, with the importance and formality of her life as a general’s wife being shown in the black, and the strong, mature woman she has become is reflected in the blue, someone who doesn’t seem put upon and downcast as she can seem in Rose’s muted brown dress.
Inhabiting these two dresses was Nuñez, commanding and majestic, the tables now turned as Onegin crumples to the floor, desperate for her attention. Her rapid breathing as she builds her resolve to order him away is impeccably judged and typical of her believability in every moment. She is despairing but never hysterical. Of course, Nuñez cheats a little… she has Tatiana inbuilt. Her honesty and goodness have come across the footlights since she first stepped on to The Royal Opera House stage as a teenager – everyone loves Nela – and maybe, like Tatiana, she lacked some emotional maturity in her early years, which was why Aurora was such a perfect fit. Now, at 37, roles such as Tatiana, (Manon, for example), are ideal for her being that she can still infuse these young girls with convincing naiveté yet has the experience and depth to develop them fully until the final curtain. Yet Nuñez the woman takes her applause looking like a delighted teenager once more.
Similarly, Roberto Bolle retained a Peter Pan boyishness for years that made him an ideal Romeo but less convincing in such manly roles as Onegin until more recently. As his face caught up with his body, parts like this began to fit him like a glove. The contrast between the stuffed shirt Onegin when he first meets Tatiana, and the abandonment and joy he expresses when he appears in her dream, is spot on. Outside of Tatiana’s dream, Bolle’s Onegin is an almost totally dislikeable character, though his attractiveness to her is evident. His flirting is cruel, and his lack of maturity in confronting Lensky’s adolescent jealousy to avoid a duel is unforgivable.
Nicola Del Freo’s Lensky was one of the best I have ever seen. Dreamy, fresh and handsome then confused, angry and petulant. His demanding solo before the duel was flawless technically, every step executed with ease, but also with great musicality and intention. Martina Arduino was Olga. She is blessed with a doll-like face which catches the light, and she radiated joy throughout the first scene. Her pas de deux with Lensky was delightful – she playful and vibrant, he ardent – with Lensky’s sensuous stage-level rond de jambe summing up perfectly their feelings of yearning and abandon.
Gabriele Corrado, another fine dancing actor from La Scala’s now impressive stable, was Prince Gremin. He has natural authority on stage, and with his strong build and care for detail, he must be every ballerina’s favourite partner.
Unfortunately, with only seven performances, and five taken by Nuñez and Bolle, there was only one opportunity to see another cast. Yet Corrado and the magnificent Emanuela Montanari were especially memorable two years ago, and it would have been good to see them again, and indeed showcase a new couple. This is always a problem with La Scala’s limited runs. The only other cast featured Nicoletta Manni as Tatiana and Marco Agostino as Onegin.
There were many differences between Manni’s interpretation and that of Nuñez, in both her characterisation and her dancing. Manni is excellent at finding every opportunity for holding a position for a microsecond longer than most ballerinas which has the same function as punctuation in a sentence, clarifying the meaning and structure. This was especially effective in her first solo when she is trying to catch Onegin’s eye and she played effectively with every step. Strangely, although a younger dancer, she was a more knowing Tatiana from curtain up.
Agostino was warmer than Bolle, which was fine but less effective, and he sometimes appeared to be putting on a ‘stern’ mask. It recalled Bolle playing these roles in his twenties. However, Agostino’s dancing is accomplished and expressive and he cuts a dashing figure on stage. Alessandra Vassallo was a delightful Olga dancing with Del Freo as Lensky, who impressed once again.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.