RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet - Ballet in Three Acts (1935) [138:00]
Juliet - Tamara Rojo
Romeo - Carlos Acosta
Mercutio - José Martín
Tybalt - Thiago Soares
Nurse - Sandra Conley
Lord Capulet - Christopher Saunders
Lady Capulet - Elizabeth McGorian
Paris - David Pickering
Benvolio - Yohei Sasaki
Escalus, Prince of Verona - Gary Avis
Rosaline - Christina Arestis
Friar Laurence and Lord Montague - Alastair Marriott
Lady Montague - Francesca Filpi
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Boris Gruzin
Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Designs: Nicholas Georgiadis
Film director: Ross MacGibbon
Picture format: 16:9/1080i HD
Sound: LPCM 24-bit stereo, 24-bit DTS HD Master Audio Surround 5.1
rec. 16 November 2007, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK
DECCA BLU-RAY 074 3336 [138:00]
In the beginning was VHS with its soft pictures and mediocre sound; then there was DVD, with sharper visuals and superior sonics; and now we have Blu-ray, which finally brings living, breathing performances into your home. As a recent convert to the format I’m afraid I’ve become something of a zealot, having already reviewed two superlative discs - Lorin Maazel’s Ring without words and Dutch National Ballet’s Don Quichotte. But does this much-lauded Romeo and Juliet live up to expectations, both artistically and technically?
Based on Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 production, premiered by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, this newcomer features another star couple - Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo - as the star-cross’d lovers. It comes freighted with the kind of praise usually reserved for once-in-a-lifetime artistic events; but from the moment we see those red and gold curtains - they’ve never looked so splendid - and hear the spine-tingling sounds from the pit, there’s little doubt we’re in for something rather special.
The opening numbers of Act 1, including the morning dance, the quarrel, the fight and Escalus’ wonderfully imperious intervention, are a visual and aural treat. The sets by Nicholas Georgiadis are minimalist, a mere backdrop to the feudal to-ing and fro-ing of old Verona; indeed, there’s such a whirl of activity that the eye can so easily be overwhelmed. The camera remains at eye level most of the time, which makes the stage seem even more crowded than it is; that said, veteran director Ross MacGibbon, whose Ondine impressed me so, does a very sympathetic job.
The new, high-res format really comes into its own in such sumptuous surroundings. The fiery reds and burnt ochre of the dancers’ costumes are superbly rendered in the razor-sharp 1080i picture, the colours of Prokofiev’s score picked out with equal clarity. Meanwhile, conductor Boris Gruzin ensures rhythms are pliant and speeds are sensible; indeed, he renews and refreshes this well-worn score in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible, aided and abetted by top-notch playing from the orchestra.
But it’s the drama on stage, especially the eye-drawing, heart-catching charisma and boyish charm of Carlos Acosta’s Romeo, that dominates. The other principals are excellent too: José Martín a Puckish Mercutio, Thiago Soares a dark, scowling Tybalt. As for the ensemble pieces, they may lack the well-drilled, corporate precision of the best Russian houses, but they more than make up for that in character and energy, the Dance of the Knights especially vivid. Sandra Conley makes an endearing Nurse, reminding her charge - in a light-hearted moment - that while she still cradles a poppet she has the burgeoning body of a young woman too.
Juliet’s dance with Paris is artfully done, her soft, unformed responses signalling her lack of interest in this most stilted suitor. But it’s the sexual chemistry that develops between Rojo and Acosta that really lights up the stage, the balcony scene among the most passionate and moving episodes I’ve ever witnessed on stage. It’s a transforming theatrical experience, where time stands still and one is drawn deep into the heart of this great love affair. Rojo and Acosta really do turn Romeo and Juliet into a flesh-and-blood romance; in response, Gruzin finds an aching tenderness in Prokofiev’s trenchant writing. It’s one of those epiphanies where heart and mind are simply overwhelmed; the rapturous applause at the curtain says it all.
The ensemble pieces of Act 2 are delivered with brio, the stage a riot of movement and colour. Prokofiev’s seamless score - most often heard as one of three truncated suites - has seldom seemed so arresting, but then the punch and kick of the Decca sound has to be heard to be believed. From the rasp of low brass to the sheen of high strings, this music has never sounded so splendid. There are moments of ineffable loveliness too, as in Prokofiev’s writing for the gentle friar, missal in hand, who marries the lovers in secret. And what supreme irony as he makes the sign of the cross above their heads, looking away as they kiss. This flare of unabashed physicality re-ignites the drama, the couple’s glorious dancing as potent and powerful as you’re ever likely to see.
In the pit Gruzin and his band keep the temperature turned up high, while on stage the sword-play is breathtaking in its dash and fluency. As for the death of Mercutio, it’s a lengthy demise kept just this side of unintentional comedy by Prokofiev’s unremitting score; the bass drum that greets the death throes of both adversaries has never sounded so lacerating, the collective grief so all-consuming. It’s a blazing end to the second Act and a dark portent of the multiple tragedies that follow.
In Act 3 Rojo brings a remarkable depth of feeling to the role of Juliet, her unwilling encounter with Paris and her father’s anger leaving her visibly distraught. It’s rare to find a dancer with such a well-stocked emotional armoury, her dilemma over the poison starkly underlined when she drops the dreaded vial and hides behind her bed in terror.
Acosta is every ounce her dramatic equal, his grief in the tomb almost too painful to watch, the lovers’ slow demise another of those protracted scenes that can so easily go awry. Thanks to incandescent playing from the pit and finely calibrated performances on stage, there could not have been a dry eye at curtain’s fall. Not surprisingly, the audience goes wild, rising to a veritable frenzy as Rojo and Acosta take their bows, looking remarkably relaxed after such a long and arduous evening.
Nureyev and Fonteyn’s Romeo and Juliet - filmed and now available on DVD from Kultur - will always be an iconic performance, but our Cuban-Spanish pair are in another league entirely. Perhaps it’s Acosta’s mix of street muscle and refined ardour plus Rojo’s complex characterisation that makes the difference here. In any event, this is an opportunity for doubters to invest in some new technology. Believe me, a decent LED TV and Blu-ray player plumbed into your home hi-fi will change the way you view concerts, operas and ballet for ever.
Nureyev and Fonteyn will always be iconic but this is in another league entirely.