An odd mixture of emotions came over me entering the stalls at La Scala to see Onegin. On the ballet’s previous outing, three years ago, I attended a performance with Carla Fracci. We’d walked from her house to the theatre and she was soon busy signing autographs – outside the theatre, in the foyer, and around her in the stalls, a small crowd formed. In October 2019 there was the same cast as the one seen this week with Roberto Bolle as Onegin, Marianela Nuñez as Tatiana, Nicola Del Freo as Lensky, Martina Arduino as Olga, and Gabriele Corrado as Prince Gremin.
After the performance Fracci wanted to compliment the cast and I took some photos (below) of her chatting with them. She especially admired Nuñez as Tatiana, a role she had first brought to La Scala in 1993 when she was 56, with the Canadian dancer Rex Harrington as Onegin. When I asked everyone to move back a little to compensate for the unflattering overhead lighting, she clowned about the wrinkle she hated under her nose, and the fact that it made her look as if she had a moustache. It was an enjoyable encounter.
After two disastrous Covid-devastated seasons, the same cast was back on stage, but La Fracci has now been resting for more than a year in Milan’s Monumental Cemetery.
Bolle and Nuñez know these roles inside out and it shows. Apart from some slight hesitancy in partnering during the ‘mirror’ pas de deux, both dancers were on fire. The almost violent nature of their final scene was moving in the extreme, and Nuñez was visibly devastated during the applause, until she brought on the conductor – the shaggy-haired Russian Felix Korobov who brought many exciting musical moments to the evening. Nuñez’s solo – danced to Onegin’s turned back – was a lesson in dance as Tatiana goes through her complete ballet vocabulary to show Onegin the scope of her love for him.
Arduino and Del Freo were less detailed in their interpretations which came over as bland – she was constantly eyes-front smiley, and his anger reached its maximum in the party scene as soon as Onegin started flirting with his girl. As his dearest friend, one would think that he would have put on a brave face, pretending to find it fun, until it goes too far. Maybe the lack of emotional growth will be less evident when they reach their fourth performance – most of the later casts only have one stab at their roles before the production is put back into storage. Arduino and Del Freo are fine dancers, of course, but for such an intricate story ballet the audience should be given a little more.
Corrado was dependable and calm as Gremin – he plays Onegin in a later cast – and his pas de deux with Nuñez was poetic and touching. Less subtle was the acting of the minor roles with small-stepped shuffling, wagging fingers, and wobbly heads, as if to say, “Hey, we’re not really part of the corps de ballet.” Although the OAPs at the party are caricatures, they are not knockabout comedians. Unlike many large companies, former company dancers at La Scala are not invited to play the older roles, yet unless you’re Meryl Streep, playing old is rarely convincing. The corps de ballet, while superb individually, were often not uniform – maybe an aftereffect of the summer break – except for the thrilling peasant dance that they’d obviously worked hard at.
John Cranko’s ballet should be called Tatiana, if his source, Alexander Pushkin, hadn’t called his verse novel Eugene Onegin. She carries the emotional weight of the ballet and Nuñez brought an exhilarating arc of passions to the performance together with many physically electrifying moments.