First came Pushkin’s novel in verse, in the 1830s. Then, in the 1870s, came Tchaikovsky’s opera, immortalizing the novel.

It would be immortal anyway, you say? Okay. But Tchaikovsky didn’t hurt.

In the 1960s came a ballet, called Onegin, created by John Cranko, the South African–born dancer and choreographer. This ballet has just been presented by the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House.

It is a wonderful idea, a ballet to Tchaikovsky’s Onegin score. There is a lot of dancing in that score, and not just the famous Polonaise. For example, there is a waltz, and a mazurka, and a thrilling peasants’ dance.

Do you want to be thrilled by it? Try James Levine in this clip, starting at about 2:30.

But wait a minute: there is not a note of Tchaikovsky’s Onegin in the ballet, as far as I can tell. Yet the score is entirely Tchaikovsky. It is made up of sundry pieces, some of them well-known, most of them not.

In Tatiana’s Letter Scene, you don’t get the Letter Scene—I mean, the music from the opera. You get some moody music in C minor and E flat. Before the duel, interestingly enough, you get some music in E minor: the same key as Lenski’s Aria. Yet the aria is nowhere to be seen, or heard.

There are some differences in the story, too. In the ballet, unlike the opera, the women—Tatiana and Olga—show up for the duel. And Prince Gremin shows up early in the ballet, to court Tatiana. In the opera, he shows up late, and married (to her).

I have quoted Ferruccio Furlanetto before, but indulge me. The great Italian bass once told me that, as far as he was concerned, Gremin was just about the best role in opera. “You play golf in the afternoon. You have a nice dinner. You arrive at the opera house during the second intermission. You sing the best aria in the opera. You steal the show. You get the girl. And you go home with a healthy check.”

ABT’s Onegin—the production—looks like an Onegin. You have the obligatory birches. There’s Tatiana’s writing desk. You have autumn colors. Indeed, the Metropolitan Opera once had a production, by Robert Carsen, in which the stage was littered with autumn leaves.

On Saturday night, the title role was danced by David Hallberg, of Phoenix, and Tatiana was danced by Hee Seo, of Seoul. When he entered, Hallberg looked the very model of a young Russian aristocrat (if such a person has Byronic hair). He projected the right worldliness and ennui. His snubbing of Tatiana was suitably jerk-like. His shenanigans with Olga were also suitably jerk-like.

Hee Seo was totally Tatiana: the bookish, innocent girl who falls in love with this jerk. Who weathers the blow. And who gains settled happiness with Gremin.

I have often expressed the view that Eugene Onegin is the biggest jerk in opera: years after dismissing Tatiana callously, he decides that he wants her, and that she must leave her husband and run off with him. Nuts to that, says Tatiana, fortunately.

In any case, David Hallberg was a study in suppleness, as always. There seems to be no muscle or nerve to hinder his body. Yet there is enough to support it. Hallberg strikes me as wet spaghetti, but wet spaghetti with a spine, if you can imagine such a thing. Hee Seo was a study in grace and poise: vulnerable as a girl (yet with a hint of steel) and less vulnerable as a woman (though not made of steel).

The final dance between Onegin and Tatiana was duly explosive and affecting. He was all lust, self-pity, and willfulness. She was a blend of resistance and desire, with the former finally winning out.

I would have liked to see the ballet again, as soon as it was concluded. And hearing it was a satisfying experience as well.

Tchaikovsky always gives the woodwinds a lot to do, and this orchestra’s handled their parts outstandingly. A clarinet solo toward the end was especially admirable. The conductor, Ormsby Wilkins, displayed “energy in the executive.” He infused the proceedings with drama and authority.

When the music-making is worthy of the dancing—you have a gratifying night at the ballet. And Eugene Onegin gratifies over and over, in all the forms we know.

But could somebody make me an Onegin ballet with the music from Onegin? I can’t afford much of a commission, but I can pay a little in prose.

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