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Hungarian National Ballet in Onegin at the Budapest Opera House

Posted on November 5, 2012

It is a wonderful time of year in Budapest: whorls of autumn mist curl up from the Danube, the avenues are lined with golden trees and the mulled wine sellers are out in force. The Hungarian National Ballet has added to the pleasure with its new production of John Cranko’s globally popular Onegin (or Anyegin in Magyar), which I saw on November 3, presented in the glittering, golden jewel-box of the capital’s Operaház.

Acting company director Tamás Solymosi, a notable interpreter of the title role who danced it in the Hungarian capital ten years ago, has commissioned new sets and costumes from Thomas Mika who has already designed the ballet for Beijing, Seoul and Antwerp. They are an almost unqualified success, bringing cleanness, clarity and coherence to the stage settings: blank scrims are artfully lit to create walls of colour or simple transparency, the only sets being four trees for the Larina estate, four columns for Gremin’s St Petersburg palace and sundry furniture. It is a far cry from the now dated fustiness of Jürgen Rose’s designs and provides handsome settings for the tragic action. I was delighted by the costumes, which are flattering and in a pleasing colour palette: provincial browns, stripes and patterns for the country, elegant embroidery on pastels and carefully cut coats for town. Especial mention must go to Steen Bjarke’s lighting that transforms the stage and creates all the necessary effects – I simply loved the pre-dawn moonlit mistiness before the duel.

Musically, matters could not have been bettered: the orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera were on magnificent form, relishing Tchaikovsky’s sonorities and playing for all they were worth – the sheer depth of sound in the tutti was superb; warm strings, strident brass, telling woodwind and insistent percussion. As Tatyana finally rejects Onegin in the ballet’s closing moments, the whirlwind of the Francesca da Rimini Overture is heard. The orchestra, under Héja Domonkos kicked up a storm, leaving the audience breathless. This was musical playing for the ballet of the highest calibre, which frankly made one jealous.

But what of the dancing? The National Ballet is an interesting young ensemble with attractive and engaged dancers who certainly threw themselves heart and soul into Onegin – I liked the unalloyed enthusiasm of the peasant boys in Act I, unembarrassed by their mujik toe-tapping; the corps in the Ball scene were elegant, the women suitably swooning during Onegin’s “memory” sequence, and, for once, the old folks at Madame Larina’s party were not altogether toe-curling in their cringe-worthiness. Apáti Bence’s Gremin was a stalwart presence, partnering his Tatyana with all the care of a jeweller handling his most precious brilliant. I missed the final ounce of his deep love for his wife that some in the role bring, but that, I am sure, will develop over time. Lili Felméry’s Olga is an auburn heart-breaker, pretty as pie and dangerously insouciant. Again, she was ever so slightly bland, careful with her choreography in the first scene but she too promises much and will relax into the role. Zoltán Oláh danced Lensky in the company’s 2002 performances, and has now graduated to the title role. If truth be told, there is still a little of the younger man in him, and his care to create an older, more world-weary persona was apparent. However, he partners with strength and elegance, which meant that his pas de deux work with Tatyana went off without a hitch (not the case for several Onegins over the years). In the last scene he allows himself to “let go” artistically for an electrifying final pas de deux in Tatyana’s boudoir. Oláh, too, will grow further into the part, although his precise mime and his bored persona in the initial scenes are already telling, as was the very clear decision to play mischief with Olga after his uncomfortable scene with the distraught Tatyana at her name day party.

I have left two dancers until last for a very specific reason: the story is their tragedy and the assumption of their roles was nothing short of first class. Gergely Leblanc is, apparently, only two years out of ballet school, but his youth is nothing but a bonus. His Lensky is coltishly impetuous, a romantically lovesick young man, whose feelings for his Olga are writ large. His acting is spontaneous, both clear in its narrative and subtle in its execution.  He cuts a tall, elegantly proportioned figure, handsomely carving out his steps, displaying good line and a holistic approach to movement – it is rare to see so young a dancer so natural in the use of his arms in particular. His pre-duel solo was carefully placed, and if this was the only juncture that greater experience may have been of use, one could not have asked for a more effective build-up and challenge of Onegin in the previous scene.  His is undoubtedly a name to watch.

Aliya Tantkpayeva is even more impressive – Tatyana is undoubtedly her emploi – and Onegin has given her a defining role in her career. She is a finely built dancer, possessed of impressive technique, and emotionally at one with her character. We first see a withdrawn, bookish Tatyana, quietly reading as her more flighty sister fusses and fiddles.  But as soon as she sees Onegin, we see hers is a heart ready for love and to be broken.  From that moment on, we know her tragedy, as it moves inexorably, to its conclusion. Her delight at writing her letter to Onegin and her hurt at his rejection strike humanly true, her adolescent distress during her party making sense of her increasingly desperate solo. She is a sad, grateful Princess Gremina in the last act, accepting of her husband’s love and pushing the awareness of the hole in her sentiments aside. Her shock at seeing Onegin at the Ball was electrifying. This all made for an emotionally exhausting final scene when she made the satisfying of her long-suppressed desires plainly apparent. This Tatyana desired and ached for Onegin, which made her final rejection of him a renunciation of superhuman proportions. A notable assumption.

 

Pictured: Aliya Tanykpayeva and Zoltan Olah in Onegin. Photograph by Pal Csillag.

Gerald Dowler writes for the Financial Times, Ballet 2000 and several dance publications and websites. His articles have included appreciations of both Bronislava Nijinska and Antony Tudor and he has interviewed extensively for Dancing Times. He teaches at the City of London School.

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