The prime examples are Kenneth MacMillan's transformation of Jules Massenet's "Manon" into a dance drama performed to music by Massenet but none of it from the opera, and John Cranko's ballet adaptation of Peter I. Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," using a score arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze from lesser-known Tchaikovsky compositions without using even a phrase of melody from the opera.
Both composers were said to have been so respectful of the operatic scores that they did not wish to edit them to fit the needs of a danced performance. Whatever their reasons, the two operas in question have been just as popular as opera-based ballets that use operatic scores such as George Balanchine's "La Sonnambula," Kim Brandstrup's "Queen of Spades," and Ronald Hynds' "Merry Widow."
"Eugene Onegin" is being performed by American Ballet Theater during its spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House running through July 6. The South African-born Cranko created the ballet in 1965 for the Stuttgart Ballet when he was its director (he died in 1973 on his way home with the company from a successful U. S. tour).
The full-evening dance drama follows scrupulously the plot of Tchaikovsky's popular opera based on an Alexander Pushkin verse novel, and is one of the company's most effective productions with three fine pairings of dancers in the Onegin and Tatiana roles to draw on. The opening night for the work had Robert Hill as Onegin and Julie Kent as Tatiana, as good a duo as you can get these days in all the world of ballet.
Onegin is a bored young St. Petersburg society bachelor who seeks diversion in the country with a friend, Lensky, who is affianced to Olga, daughter of a landed but not aristocratic family. But provincial country life bores Onegin, who is something of a snob.
Olga has a bookish sister, Tatiana, who falls head over heels in love with the dark, brooding Onegin, and writes an indiscreet letter pledging him "my whole life." Onegin tears up the letter and chooses instead to flirt with Olga, who is not unreceptive to his attentions. The outraged Lensky challenges his friend to a duel and is killed.
Onegin flees Russia and lives for many years abroad in an attempt to escape a sense of futility. When he returns and discovers Tatiana has married a wealthy prince and is a popular St. Petersburg hostess, he attempts to woo her only to be spurned as he had once spurned her. She tears up a letter he has addressed to her begging for her love.
Hill, a native Long Islander celebrating his 20th year with ABT, is magnificent as Onegin, portraying the anti-hero a dark, dominating presence that is at once ominous and fascinating. He is good enough an actor to make Onegin a compelling enigma of intellectual substance and suppressed passions rather than a shallow social climber, a characterization that often eludes opera baritones singing the role.
As a dancer of formidable technique, Hill's every elegantly flowing movement is eloquent in revealing Onegin as a sensitive, introspective man. When he bursts through the Tatiana's bedroom mirror to dance an impassioned pas de deux with her in a vision of her own imagining, he is the fulfillment of every young girl's dream of romantic ecstasy.
Kent, one of ABT's principal ballerinas since 1993, exhibited her wondrous arm and leg extensions to their best effect in the first act to capture the innocent openness of Tatiana's rapturous obsession with Onegin. In the second act, Kent's dancing takes on a formal poise befitting her new social station and she shows herself to be a mature woman under complete control of her emotions as Onegin throws himself despairingly at her feet.
As Lensky, Vladimir Malahov, ABT's Ukrainian glamour boy with a buoyant, boyish personality, is a perfect foil to the contemplative Onegin. He is a strong, athletic dancer who is all bounce in his duets with Olga, charmingly danced by Maria Riccetto, a rising ballerina with the company.
Carlos Molina, in the role of Tatiana's husband, Prince Gremin, is given little to do but act courteously and support Kent in their pas de deux.
Jurgen Rose's sets for both town and country are in the grand ballet tradition -- a 19th century ballroom with malachite columns shimmering with the light from crystal chandeliers and a misty woodland vista seen from the garden of a modest estate mansion. They are complimented by the designer's lovely costumes in a color palette of pale blues, rose pinks, and beiges.
"Onegin" has been staged with skill and sensitivity to the traditions of period ballet production by Reid Anderson and Jane Bourne. Charles Barker conducts the ABT orchestra.