Sunday, February 05, 2012

Romeo and Juliet

A scene from Moscow City Ballet performing Romeo and Juliet

Last night I attended a performance by the Moscow City Ballet of Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Composed in 1935 during the dark days of Stalin's iron rule of Russia, the story of the tragic lovers of Verona is of course originally the subject of a play by William Shakespeare.  The ballet Romeo and Juliet is the musical work which established Prokofiev's fame as a composer upon his return to Soviet Russia - its become firmly established in the ballet repertoire. Written for a large orchestra including 6 horns, mandolin, violin d'amore, piano, organ and an extensive 'kitchen-department' of percussion, an unusual aspect of the musical score is the addition of a tenor saxophone. This single instrument adds lush colouration to the orchestral timbre. Prokofiev was not averse from occasionally re-cycling earlier musical material, and in Act 2 of Romeo and Juliet  inthe Ball room scene, the Gavotte of the Classical symphony (1917) is used to great effect.

Romeo and Juliet  has been choreographed a number of times. When Kenneth MacMillian re-interpreted it  for the Royal Ballet company in 1965  the leading roles were danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev to great critical acclaim, re-launching and extending Fonteyn's dancing career. In 1977 Nureyev himself choreographed a new version of Romeo and Juliet for the London Festival Ballet company.

The Moscow City Ballet company was founded in 1988 by Russian choreographer Victor Smirnov-Golovanov. Their performance at the Theatre Royal Norwich, was marked with vitality and sensitivity. With lavish costumes and designs by Natalia Povago, the dance company  added gaiety and humour to the essentially dark tale of tragic love. In particular the company's leading female dancer Oryekhova Liliya in the role of Juliet, and Kozhabayev Talgat as Romeo, carry the success of the night's performance. It's a fairly long ballet with the best pas de deux of the ill-fated lovers occurring in the last ten minutes of Act I. If there is a weakness to any choreographing of Romeo and Juliet, it occurs in Act III which demands a lot of scene changing and coming and going during night-time in the plot. Indeed I noticed the love of my life glancing at her wrist-watch more than once during this final act. One highly original aspect of Golovanov's choreography of Romeo and Juliet is its very beginning coinciding with its ending. The bodies of all three tragic deaths are  presented to the audience carried in bier-fashion as if upon an  upside-down cross.

In many ways the artistic demands of Natalia Ryshenko and Golovanov's choreography are tempered by a quite demanding touring schedule. The company completed an 8 week tour of the UK in late autumn 2011 and are now embarked upon a 12 week tour with performances almost daily in English cities from January until the end of March, before travelling onto Italy and France. The rigours of such a schedule necessitates one cannot expect too much flamboyance or excessive technical brilliance, as seen on filmed performances, and maybe the orchestral body was slightly thinner than the full music score requests. Nevertheless the Moscow company's modern production for modern times went down extremely well with the Norwich audience. And as if on cue the departing audience were greeted with the sight of a blanket of snow outdoors. The first snowfall of winter in England, direct from the Russian Steppes had arrived during the performance.

I remember when in Verona, the city of the feuding Montagues and Capulets of Renaissance Italy,  one of the city's tourist attractions was the supposed balcony from which Juliet and Romeo meet for a love tryst. It was daily heavily over-subscribed with tourists from all over the world wanting to photograph  the balcony and bronze statuette of Juliet in its court-yard.

There's even a tenuous Norwich connection to Romeo and Juliet because the second Quarto of 1599 of Shakespeare's plays names Will Kemp, instead of Peter in a line in Act five of the drama. Kemp, it will be remembered, was the actor in Shakespeare's company who jigged from London to Norwich, completing his 'nine days wonder'  by leaping over the church-yard wall of Saint John, Maddermarket. 

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