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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, ballet in three acts
Libretto Leonid Lavrosky, Adrian Piotrovsky, Sergei Prokofiev & Sergei Radlov based on the tragedy by William Shakespeare
Juliet – Ekaterina Sapogova
Romeo – Alexandr Merkushev
Mercutio – Igor Bulytsyn
Benvolio – Gleb Sageev
Tybalt – Vadim Eremin
Ural Opera Ballet Ekaterinburg
Orchestra of Ural Opera Ballet Ekaterinburg / Pavel Klinichev
Vyacheslav Samodurov (Choreography)
Anthony MacIlwaine (Set design); Irena Belousova (Costume design); Simon Bennison (lighting design); Klara Dovzhik (assistant choreographer)
Film directed by Denis Ca´ozzi and produced by Franšois Duplat
rec. live April 2019, Ural Opera Theatre, Ekaterinburg, Russia
Picture: 1 BD50 Full HD – 16.9 – All Regions
Sound: PCM Stereo
BELAIR CLASSIQUES Blu-Ray BAC580 [117 mins]

In the early and mid-20th Century the three major ballets by Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker – were viewed as the three greatest full-length ballets and unsurprisingly also the most popular works in the genre. However, by the later quarter of the century, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet had joined this select trio of greats and it remains exceedingly popular to this day. It’s arguably the greatest of the full-length ballets (personally I’d vote for Swan Lake) but it certainly is one of Prokofiev’s supreme masterpieces and one of the most often-staged ballets. Additionally, the suites the composer extracted from the score are well known and some of his most frequently performed music.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Prokofiev lived abroad, mostly in Paris. Though he wrote several ballets while living out of his native country, Romeo and Juliet is the first he composed for production in the Soviet Union. He had returned to the country in 1936. The path of the ballet to the stage was rocky. It was initially planned to be staged at the Kirov (now the Mariinsky) in what was then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). However, even before Prokofiev had begun to write, the Kirov collaboration fell through. Prokofiev offered it instead to Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, but its dancers dismissed the piece as impossible for dancing. With this second rejection, the composer converted the score into two celebrated orchestral suites – premiered in 1936 and 1937 respectively.

The ballet itself first reached the stage in 1938, but in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Its Soviet premiere occurred only in 1940. It was a significantly revised version first presented at the now Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on 11 January 1940. The choreography was by Leonid Lavrovsky (also involved in the libretto) – the first ever to choreograph a full version of the ballet, with celebrated ballerina Galina Ulanova and dancer Konstantin Sergeyev in the leading roles.

Ballet fans in the UK will be familiar with Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 wonderful choreography to Prokofiev’s music, still performed today by the Royal Ballet, or with Rudolf Nureyev’s version in 1977; perhaps also with the versions created in Germany by John Cranko for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1962 or John Neumeier’s for Frankfurt in 1971. The point is that there are numerous versions and interpretations of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and not all are as marvellous as the ones I mentioned above but all follow Shakespeare’s tragedy more or less faithfully.

The present Blu-ray is a new production from the Ural Opera Ballet in Ekaterinburg in Russia. Formerly known as Ekaterinburg Opera and Ballet Theatre it is one of the four federal musical theatres in Russia. Every season it showcases Russian and international premieres of operas and ballets. In 2018, the theatre underwent rebranding, acquiring the new name of Ural Opera Ballet.

This new production is an effective though minimalistic staging, with excellent performances and some truly superb dancing. The choreography is mostly classical but contains steps and elements from jazz dance. It often works exceptionally well but sometimes not so much. It is a modern interpretation and attempts at making believe that the dancers have actually arrived to rehearse the piece and not to perform it in front of the audience. It begins with the dancers arriving on stage. There is some excitement around a clothes rack while they pretend to evaluate and/or choose a costume. Then the ballet effectively starts but they are in their practising/training outfits rather than real costumes. To my mind, this concept would have worked better if the scene with the dancers arriving on stage and then leaving at the end would have been just that – beginning and end. However, the fiddling with the costumes on the clothes rack and gathering in groups pretending to discuss something among them happen a few times throughout the ballet. Personally, I found it irritating. It stops the action, the flow of the choreography, and the immersion in the plot and in the music.

The choreography by former Royal Ballet principal Vyacheslav Samodurov (b. 1974) is generally a good reading of Prokofiev’s music and of the story. The jazz dance elements are very effective during the fights, giving these great expression. They efficiently depict the stupidity of the whole fighting business, presenting the boys almost as if they were aggressive, young bulls who have no idea how to control their hormones and fight without always grasping why. The ball at the Capulets looks stately more because of the spectacular costumes by Irena Belousova than the actual dancing. The dresses, especially of the female dancers, are rather grand, using very warm colours - copper, gold and red – which accompanied by clever lighting literally make the screen glitter. The choreography is here a bit repetitive but Prokofiev’s music for this scene is so superb that one forgets about the less satisfying dance movements. The balcony scene, which starts without the balcony bit, is quite delightful once Romeo and Juliet begin dancing together. The jazz dance elements here give it a youthful, vivid and energetic edge that is appropriate and brilliantly expresses the overwhelming, passionate feelings of the two young lovers for each other. In the end, Juliet does go up a staircase to the said balcony thus implying that it is where she came from in the beginning. The final moments of the lovers are also exceptionally well choreographed and their pain, suffering and desperation do truly come across.

The Ural Opera Ballet boasts a high number of impressive dancers and the performances are all of exceptional quality. The minor roles of Mercutio (Igor Bulytsyn), Benvolio (Gleb Sageev) and Tybalt (Vadim Eremin) are outstandingly performed and they are all terrific in the fight scenes. I had never heard of Alexandr Merkushev before but his Romeo is a rather cheeky, lively, youthful and convincing one. Like most dancers who trained in the Russian school, Merkushev, as well as the other three mentioned above, has a masterful, clean technique. Their movements are executed with graceful precision, elegance and very pure lines. Good though they are, it is Ekaterina Sapogova as Juliet that stands out and positively shines. She lights up the stage with the delicate elegance of her arms and her ethereal, seemingly weightless steps when she is en pointe. Her portrayal of young Juliet is moving, charming and very believable. I had never before seen her dance but had read about her. She has been nominated twice, as best female dancer, for the Golden Mask Award – the most prestigious award in Russia (established in 1993 by the Theatre Union of the Russian Federation) given to productions in all genres of theatre art: drama, opera, ballet, modern dance, operetta, musical, and puppet theatre.

The settings by Britain’s Anthony MacIlwaine are minimalistic and rather simple but generally effective, formed of round galleries (that appear made of iron or wood painted red), with various levels and long red curtains. Whether on purpose is debatable but they resemble the galleries in Shakespeare’s Globe and serve as the background for all the scenes. The curtains go up or down and can be moved across, giving the illusion of the different spaces in which the story evolves – the square, the ballroom of the Capulets, the church and so on. The lighting by Britain’s Simon Bennison is accomplished and effectively enhances the illusion of background changing, as well as the ball costumes and making it a more opulent affair.

The orchestra of the Ural Opera Ballet play with gusto and appear to relish in Prokofiev’s music, delivering a pleasing, enjoyable reading of the work under the baton of their chief conductor Pavel Klinichev – better known for his conducting of operas but who does exceptionally well with this ballet.

The booklet accompanying the Blu-ray disc is quite limited – a real shame. Apart from the credits and very attractive colour photographs of the production, it contains only the synopsis of the plot in English, French and German. I would have liked to see an explanation of the reasons behind the production, the ideas of the choreographer and perhaps a little about Prokofiev and his music. Like all Blu-rays the quality of the image and sound is top notch, always a plus in any filmed ballet performance.

Overall, this production from the Ural Opera Ballet is a very satisfying if not memorable one and there is much to enjoy, not least some superb dancing that will delight any ballet or dance fan.

Margarida Mota-Bull
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at http://www.flowingprose.com/)

Previous review: Robert Cummings



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