This is the most coherent and absorbing ballet production I have seen in a long time. Romeo and Juliet
may be amongst the most performed of all 20th century ballets but it rarely comes across with this level of impact. Over and over again during the viewing of this excellent disc I kept thinking: at last a production that comes up to the standard of Prokofiev's great score!
The film opens at the front of the Paris Opera and after some irrelevant public scenes and street sounds we are taken into the auditorium and become part of the audience on 12 August 1995. Even the five-channel surround sound manages to place us in front of the stage, indeed at times in the orchestra pit, with the majority of the audience audibly behind us but not too audible I am glad to say. In this audience no one is noisily unwrapping sweets or explaining the plot to their small daughters as is the way in my local theatre.
There are some production details to address. The top menu is accompanied by a closed loop of Prokofiev's music, a very annoying, but sadly typical, ploy by producers of such discs. Please will they give us silence. The performers' credits are run against the introduction to Act 1 which is a nice touch. I confess to having never heard of any of these dancers. Entirely my loss because the principals are magnificent (see below) and no one involved is less than top class. The sound is very satisfactory in both CD standard stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1. A pity there is no use of the HD sound systems available on Blu Ray because the Paris Opera Orchestra gives a superb performance of the score under the direction of Vello Pähn, so good one could just listen. The high definition picture quality, derived from the European Union 16:9 project of the 1990s, is not up to current standards of sharpness but certainly looks clean and clear even in the darker scenes. Camera work is unobtrusive with the emphasis on the dancing and a moderate use of close-ups for facial expressions where needed. Only in one scene is the viewer aware of sweaty dancers. Finally one must note that this is headlined on the packaging as "Rudolf Nureyev's Romeo and Juliet
". He is not in it, indeed he had been dead two years when this was performed, but it is his famous reworking of the ballet for the Paris Opera of 1984. The liner-notes give a short paragraph about it.
The opening shows a funeral cart crossing the stage followed by hooded figures. It sets the scene for a seriously dramatic evening. Even the women of the two families get involved in the brawling at the start. There is a lot of excellent stage business during the ballet; both comedy and tragedy is reflected in countless vignettes. The lovers' first scene is very beautiful. The interplay between Mercutio, Benvolio and the Nurse is cleverly handled; in fact the nurse herself is much handled too! The death of Mercutio is one of several coups de théâtres
in this production. At first the crowd believes him to be play-acting and even gives him a round of applause as he finally collapses and dies! The impact when they realise he really is dead is thus heightened. The death of Tybalt seemed to me to be underplayed and this was perhaps the one moment when the tension flagged - even the tempo of the music dropped back too far. The start of Act 3 shows Juliet dancing with an embodiment of death, very effective. After a beautiful final love scene and Romeo's departure Juliet has to face the parental demand to marry Paris. Her distraught reaction is magnificent theatre. Principal Dancer Monique Loudières is very fine here and really never lets the tension go through to the tragic ending. She is shown dancing with the dead Mercutio and Tybalt implying that she too will be joining them only too soon. The choreography and staging reaches even greater intensity and matches the increasingly sinister music of this final act. Prokofiev's fabulous score is well matched. The whole scene of Juliet's supposed death is masterly. The full corps de ballet is involved in a ghostly dance which emphasises the grim situation. Romeo dances with Juliet's lifeless body, so he believes, in a moment both affecting and macabre.
I have left till last my comment on Monique Loudières who must have been dancing her farewell season because she retired from the stage the following year to become a teacher of the next generation of French dancers. Mme Loudières is simply magnificent from the girlish playfulness of her flirtation in Act 1 to the moment of high tragedy when she discovers Romeo's body. As I said at the start, everyone is excellent, but she left even this seasoned reviewer with a tear in his eye.
An essential purchase for all lovers of ballet, music and fine theatre.