Review

Reviving a Classic Tragedy: Romeo and Juliet at The Royal Ballet

Photo: HELEN MAYBANKS/ROH

Gray skies in autumnal London seemed a shade darker on October 22, when news of the death of the Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, who had been the artistic director of the Royal Opera House from 1987 to 2002, at age 92 was announced. Early in his tenure, Haitink had led one of the staples of the company’s ballet repertoire, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, set to a score by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. It was therefore fitting that the evening’s performance of this revival was dedicated to his memory.

Romeo and Juliet has a storied history in Britain, where Shakespeare’s play gave birth to the tale in its modern form, and in Russia, where it remains a surprisingly stark artifact of Soviet times. The subject was suggested to Prokofiev in 1934 by the Soviet dramatist and arts administrator Adrian Piotrovsky and commissioned for performance by what was by then known as Leningrad’s State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet—later the Kirov, but originally and presently known as St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. The subject fit well with the priorities of Soviet arts politics, which favored so-called “dramatic ballet” (drambalet), characterized by an easily recognizable plot, over the abstractions of form and movement that dominated ballet’s modernist idiom. The Romeo and Juliet story also complemented the Soviet arts establishment’s reversion to the classical canons of literature after fleeting attempts to create an experimental “proletarian” art culture.

Prokofiev began the project while he was in the process of being lured back to the Soviet Union through a combination of official flattery and surreptitious threats. His original synopsis, written with the director Sergei Radlov, changed Shakespeare’s tragic ending into a happy one, in which the star-crossed lovers survive. That went down poorly with the arts commissars, who strenuously objected to this alteration of the classic play. After Radlov had resigned from the Kirov for other reasons, the project was thoroughly revised and reassigned to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, where it languished through Stalin’s Great Terror, which, among other horrors, included a vehement official denunciation of modernist art and composition.

Prokofiev, by then living full-time in the Soviet Union, had pledged to depart from the modernist idiom of his earlier works, but the score remained dissonant and jarring enough to cause concern. His colleague Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which premiered at around the same time, was infamously denounced in a review possibly written or commissioned by Stalin himself as “muddle instead of music” and shelved. Piotrovsky, who had suggested Prokofiev’s subject, was denounced for “balletic falsification,” arrested, and then executed. Radlov left for German-occupied Paris during World War II and was later sent to a Soviet concentration camp after making the mistake of returning home in 1945. Prokofiev survived, but his work suffered. His pro-revolutionary opera Semyon Kotko was postponed after its intended director Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured, and shot.

Romeo and Juliet’s 1938 premiere was held in Brno, Czechoslovakia, by a visiting Yugoslavian dance company and passed almost unnoticed. Its Leningrad premiere in 1940, however, was a massive success and enshrined the work in the highest echelon of Russian ballet. When its choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky restaged it for the Bolshoi in 1946, he was awarded the Stalin Prize. It was a centerpiece of the Bolshoi’s historic 1956 visit to the United Kingdom, where it captivated audiences in a rare landmark achievement of Soviet cultural diplomacy.

Ninette de Valois (the stage name of Edris Stannus), the dancer who founded and directed the Royal Ballet, was so taken by Romeo and Juliet that she negotiated with the Soviets to have Lavrovsky stage it for her company to celebrate the looming 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, which was in 1964. That effort lagged due to Soviet intransigence. By the time a deal had been struck, Lavrovsky’s fortunes waned, and he was removed from his post as the Bolshoi’s ballet director, ironically for the realism he had introduced into performance two decades earlier. De Valois retired in 1963, and her successor Frederick Ashton agreed that the young choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, later a director of the Royal Ballet himself, should create an original new production for the London stage.

This accidental battle in the cultural Cold War resulted in a resounding British triumph. MacMillan’s version, still in repertoire today with stunning, colorful sets by Nicholas Georgiadis, is known and revered internationally, while the guarded Soviets stewed in their juices with an older production by a disfavored director. More than eighty years later, Lavrovsky’s production remains in repertoire in Russia and is unlikely to be replaced any time soon. To grind salt into wounded Soviet sensibilities, MacMillan’s 1965 premiere starred the recently defected Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as Romeo. He received a record 43 curtain calls amid applause that went on for nearly an hour and toured internationally in the production.

MacMillan’s 1965 premiere of Romeo and Juliet starred the recently defected Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as Romeo.

The greatest artistic irony, however, is that MacMillan and his creative team have embraced the same realist idiom that the original Soviet production had introduced. There can be no doubt from the sets and costumes that we are in a Renaissance world; not an idealized Shakespearean one, but a cruel and violent one where feuding factions and deathly swordplay are grim facts of life. Prokofiev’s score relies heavily on motivic elements, and the motif of social and parental oppression that dominates the tyrannical Act I, titled “Dance of the Knights”—the score’s best-known music—turns up powerfully in the lead to Juliet’s desperate but fatally ill-conceived deception. Death movements are jerky and angular, suggesting neither grace nor acceptance but resistance and pain as characters are run through or poisoned or, in Juliet’s case, stab themselves. Emotional blows are as visceral as the physical ones, with Juliet letting out a silent scream to rival Michael Corleone’s in the third Godfather film when she realizes that Romeo has taken his own life. At the end, there is no reconciliation of the warring families, just the finality of their children’s lonely deaths.

The Royal Opera is circulating several dancers through the lead roles in this revival, a frequent presence here last seen in 2019. The Russian principal dancer Vadim Muntagirov delivered an impassioned Romeo, with lithe but muscular movements that were well balanced enough to leave Juliet space to drive much of the plot. Yasmine Naghdi’s Juliet captured the character’s girlish essence, which is so often lost in stage productions. Koen Kessels led a brassy but effective reading of Prokofiev’s score.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.

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