When Sergei Prokofiev set out to compose Romeo and Juliet he did so positively. Having been absent from Russia since 1918, he saw the opportunity to return and compose any ballet or opera that he wished as a triumphant homecoming. Prokofiev’s initial score reflected his joy at being back in homeland; composed over the course of the summer at an artist’s retreat in Polenovo, he deviated from Shakespeare’s traditional tragic ending. Instead, Romeo was refrained from stabbing himself by Friar Laurence, and whilst they wrestled with the dagger, Juliet began to breathe. Instead of their lives ending in tragedy, Prokofiev intended for literature’s most famous lovers to leave the stage together, accompanied by a joyful score.
Prokofiev’s alterations to the traditional plot were supported and the ballet was billed for the 1936-7 season at the Bolshoi. Unfortunately, the ballet’s release was pre-empted by Stalin’s great purge, during which more than a million people were detained and over 600,000 executed. Among the victims were several of those who had supported Prokofiev’s efforts. When the ballet eventually premiered in 1939, the alterations to the plot had been reversed, the love of Romeo and Juliet was once again doomed and Prokofiev had decided on a slightly more traditional approach.
The Russian State Ballet of Siberia have also chosen to adopt a more traditional approach in their rendition of Romeo and Juliet, setting it in renaissance Verona, rejecting the current fashion of assuming that ballet/opera/Shakespeare is inaccessible and thus placing the performance within a more “accessible” context. The result is refreshing. The changing backdrops of renaissance streets, chapels, and mausoleums drew the audience in easily, allowing them to focus on the performance rather than how the director (Sergei Bobrov) was choosing to interpret the work.
And what a performance! The corps de ballet and the orchestra worked in perfect conjunction, one never dominating the other. That the dancers were not overwhelmed by the music is a testament to their collective talent. Not once in the performance was there an obvious missed step, nor a missed beat; the performance was seamless. Ekaterina Bulgutova was everything you would expect Juliet to be. Fresh, innocent, and incredibly talented, she dominated the stage. During the Capulet Ball, in which she and Romeo weaved between the other dancers, she pulled the audience’s focus with her despite the crowded stage. In the final scene, accompanied by the Death Heralds, she truly invoked the tragedy of the scene, capturing the essence of what Prokofiev, and indeed Shakespeare himself, intended.
Yury Kudryavstev, who portrayed Romeo, evidently enjoyed the performance as much as the audience did, a grin never being far from his face. Whilst for much of the show his good cheer brought freshness to the performance, at other times it did detract from the gravity of events. He thankfully managed to maintain a straight face when beholding his beloved’s seemingly lifeless body, but he was unable to do so when cradling his dying friend Mercutio.
Nevertheless, the performance was a triumph, elevating the power of both the story and the music and proving why the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is still revered world over.
Romeo and Juliet was performed at the Norwich Theatre Royal on Wednesday 4th April.