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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891 - 1953)
Romeo and Juliet ballet, Op 64 (1936)
Juliet: Allesandra Ferri
Romeo: Angel Corella
Corpo di Ballo del Teatro alla Scala
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala/David Garforth
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan (adapted by Parker/Parkinson/Lincoln)
Recorded at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, January 2000
PAL 16:9 anamorphic Colour No region code. Disk format: DVD-9
Sound: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 Special feature: "Soundcheck"
EuroArts TDK DVD 10 5007 9 DV-BLRAJ [115.00]


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It is difficult for us to understand what actually goes on in a police state dictatorship. Prokofiev had fled to the West at the beginning of the Russian Revolution and had had many successes—and a few failures. When he returned to Russia in 1933, it was the result of a personal deal he made with Stalin, and Stalin, for all his many failures and vices, kept that compact till his death in 1953 (Prokofiev died the same day). We now realise that Prokofiev wrote whatever he wanted to in Russia. The Party functionaries could challenge him but Prokofiev thumbed his nose at them and they couldn’t hurt him. The closest they got to him was when Prokofiev divorced his wife—she thereby lost her ‘protection’ and was at once arrested on a trumped up charge and sent to a prison camp.

When the West first heard Prokofiev’s great Romeo and Juliet music, his setting himself upon the pedestal with Tchaikovsky, they were puzzled by the music, called it "satirical." Prokofiev had been concerned about the final scene, and considered for a while changing to a happy ending. "Dead people can’t dance," he said. His solution to the problem, having Romeo dance with Juliet’s presumed dead body proved achingly effective, as did the brilliant use of the military snare drum in the music to symbolise the inexorable working of fate. Romeo and Juliet is, after all, an anti-war statement. Soviet productions tended to suggest that Juliet’s family were the evil wealthy capitalists and Romeo’s family the common people, injecting some Marxist class struggle into the plot; but this was easily removed from most Western productions. Today the music does not bewilder, and we luxuriate in its beauty and power. Those who have never seen the ballet probably cannot imagine how a Shakespeare play could be translated to a wordless medium, but here it is; almost every detail of the story is expressed with great colour and intensity.

The all time great video performance of this work is the Soviet film from 1954 with the Bolshoi Ballet, with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducting, and with Galina Ulanova and Yuri Zhdanov in the title roles. Faded colour and wavery sound notwithstanding, one must have this version! It is one of the greatest films of all time, and certainly the very greatest ballet film. Every frame looks like a Renaissance painting. The impact of this film is shattering; I could only bear to watch half of it in a day. This choreography makes almost exclusive use of the motions of classical ballet. The outdoor scenes were actually filmed out of doors on an enormously spacious village set in the sunlight with real mountains and clouds in the background, or at night with the wind blowing the funeral torches into knives of light. The Maazel recording on Decca of the complete score runs to 140 minutes. All ballet versions are cut to some degree; here a number of dances had to be cut to bring the running time down to 91 minutes, but all the familiar tunes seem to be there. This version is available on video tape and laserdisc from collector sources—try searching the ‘net under "Ulanova Juliet." Buy what is available now and hope we will some day soon have a completely restored version with newly recorded sound.

Another available La Scala version is from 1982 with Rudolf Nureyev as choreographer and dancing the role of Romeo. At 129 minutes’ length, it nevertheless cuts some familiar music, replacing it with repetitions of other music. This is deceptively advertised as "Nureyev-Fonteyn" but in fact Dame Margot Fonteyn here plays only the bit part of Juliet’s mother, a pantomime role, and Juliet is played by Carla Fracci. Nureyev’s choreography not surprisingly expands the part of Romeo and gives him many opportunities to perform his famous leaps. There are many fine moments in this version—the stage lighting, the costumes, some of the bits of ‘business.’ I especially liked the first big fight scene where the dancers, the men aggressively egged on by the women, start out with their fists and only later use their swords. But the choreography naively misses not a single opportunity for a grand gesture or a set piece by the corps de ballet, so that by the end there is nothing left but some tiresome and bathetic pantomime. The picture and sound are adequate but undistinguished. If you collect versions of this ballet you will want this one, too, but not as the only version in your collection.

This La Scala 2000 performance is with choreography utterly unlike any of the other versions. Picture and sound are excellent. The orchestra plays extremely well, having only a little trouble early on with some of the polyrhythmic passages; they lack only that tiniest bit of sharp rhythmic edge other renowned orchestras have brought to this music. The colours are soft. One wishes that the lighting contrast had been more varied between those scenes which occur out of doors or at night as compared to those occurring indoors. I confess to being a little put off by the spectacle of a crowd of identical young men in glistening tights and swelling baskets prancing around the stage—red for Capulets, green for Montagues, virtually naked from the sternum down except for the merest film of iridescent Spandex. In the Ulanova/Zhdanov film every fighter had his own unique, violent persona with authentically rugged costumes that did not hinder the motions of the dance. At La Scala 2000 the fight scenes are vigorous, but not savage; they were notably more violent in La Scala 1982. This is, after all, a parable in protest against war and the horror of violence is part of the message.

The acting is exceptionally vivid, especially Ms. Ferri as Juliet whose body language conveys every thought from moment to moment. She doesn’t need to speak for you to know what’s she’s thinking and saying, and Corella is in every way her worthy partner. In this version Romeo and Juliet die unblessed by Friar Lawrence. The familial elders do not rapproche on stage, denying us even that mere hint of a happy ending.

For La Scala to have mounted at least two strong productions of this story may have to do with a little more than just the quality of the music. The story not only takes place in Italy, but was originally an Italian story. Prokofiev’s source was Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s source was Arthur Brooke, and Brooke’s source was Mateo Bandello whose work derives from numerous Italian plays, and them perhaps ultimately from the ancient Greek tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. But several of the familiar characters we know are Shakespeare’s alone.

Regrettably I was unable to obtain in reasonable time a DVD copy of the widely acclaimed 1966 Royal Ballet performance with Nureyev as Romeo and Fonteyn as Juliet, choreography by Kenneth MacMillan, and with John Lanchberry conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, running 125 minutes. Reviewers overall praised the chemistry between the star dancers, many commented that although Fonteyn did not look 14 years old, she nevertheless danced flawlessly. Neither picture quality nor sound quality were found outstanding even by 1966 standards. Apparently the PAL versions are better than the NTSC. Some found fault with the video direction. I was also unable to obtain the 1992 DVD version by Ken Nagano and the Lyon Opera Ballet with choreography by Angelin Preljocaj and starring Pascale Doye as Juliet and Nicholas Dufloux as Romeo. This production is sharply revisionist, set in the severe environment of a Communist dictatorship and using about half of the score padded out with repeats to fill an 85 minute production. Some critics enjoyed it, but all agreed it is not to be recommended to persons seeking the classical ballet scenario.

Well, what is my advice? If you must have the best and are not put off by dated video and sound quality, you want the Ulanova/Zhdanov version and/or the Nureyev/Fonteyn 1966. If you don’t know much about ballet and want a good show overall, your choice is Ulanova/Zhdanov. If you must have the finest sound and picture quality available in a classic version, your only choice is Ferri/Corella. If you want the prettiest Juliet and the handsomest Romeo surrounded by beautiful bodies in a classic version, again, your choice is Ferri/Corella. For the best costume and set design the nod might go to Nureyev/Fracci at La Scala 1982, with Ulanova/Zhdanov a very close runner up. If you want to explore the unusual, include Nagano’s Doye/Dufloux version. If you dearly love the music and the ballet and have the space and money, there are significant virtues in all these performances and you will want them all.

Paul Shoemaker

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