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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet - Ballet in three acts (1935) [158:00 + 15:00 (features)]
see performance & recording details below review
OPUS ARTE OA 1100 D [158:00 + 15:00 (features)]

In 1968 the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli created something of a stir when he released his feature film of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. That wasn't because the film was an artistic triumph - though neither was it a complete stinker. Rather, it was his choice of leading actors that grabbed the headlines. Juliet was played by 16 years old Olivia Hussey and her lover Romeo by Leonard Whiting who was just a year older.

In fact, Shakespeare tells us - through the words of her nurse - that in the play Juliet is aged just 13. Romeo, we can probably assume, is in his late teens. With few actresses of 13 or actors of, say, 19 actually up to the required artistic standard, the roles have more usually been taken by their seniors. Exotic silent screen vamp Theda Bara was a 31 years old Juliet in 1916; a couple of decades later, Hollywood’s dream pairing of the star-crossed lovers involved 33 years old Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard who was, in reality, aged 42.

Similarly, in the world of dance few performers have the technique to essay the roles at an appropriately Shakespearean age. Most famously, when Kenneth MacMillan's ballet was first staged in 1965, the ballerina creating the leading role was 45 years old Margot Fonteyn. To be fair, the critics of the time felt that her years melted away when she was partnered with Rudolf Nureyev, a mere slip of a boy at 26. It is nonetheless worth pointing out that the choreographer had originally had Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, both in their mid-20s, in mind for the roles until Covent Garden’s management demanded a new showcase for their iconic stars Fonteyn and Nureyev.

Since that 1965 premiere, the Royal Ballet has presented this version of Romeo and Juliet more than 400 times. On this new DVD, preserving a 2012 broadcast relayed to cinemas worldwide, the leads are Federico Bonelli, in his mid-30s at the time, and Lauren Cuthbertson who was in her late 20s. The first point to emphasise is that both are entirely convincing in their depiction of teenage lovers. The charismatic Bonelli certainly looks younger than his real age and graduates convincingly from laddish bravado to lovestruck swain. At the same time Cuthbertson - cleverly costumed as a convincingly flat-chested adolescent - captures to perfection the gauche yet dreamy mannerisms of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. When we first meet her in the second scene, she impresses with her youthful, carefree agility: this really is a girl who would still play with a doll. Yet, just moments later, when she first catches sight of her Romeo (33:23) and then quickly goes on to partner him in a dance, she is transformed in front of our eyes - and to her own evident wonderment - into a young adult. Cleverly, though, this is no simple black/white transformation: in the subsequent “balcony" scene, which is no such thing because a romantic pas de deux requires rather more in the way of floor space, Juliet still exhibits a child’s wide-eyed amazement as she and Romeo experience the emotional ecstasy of young love.

The standard of dancing here is at least the match of the acting. Cuthbertson, in particular, makes the most amazing use of her supple body throughout - and, ironically enough, in the final scene she makes an especially striking impression as a drugged “corpse” being thrown this way and that by a Romeo who is in utter despair at his apparent loss.

The other principal dancers also acquit themselves very well. Among others, I was struck especially by Valeri Hristov who dances the role of Paris and completely inhabits the role as a born aristocrat, a convincing suitor for Juliet whether courting her in her bedroom or at the subsequent ball. Alexander Campbell impresses too as a suitably lively and youthful Mercutio, playing the arguably over-choreographed death scene quite memorably. Bennet Gartside’s portrayal of Tybalt exudes convincingly poisonous brutality and malevolence, while Christina Arestis makes the most of her subsequent opportunity for some excessive but rather moving emoting over his corpse.
Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography mixes its moods with impressive effect. Beautifully constructed moments of intimacy for the lovers are contrasted with strikingly vigorous episodes for dancers en masse in both the marketplace scenes, notable for their interplay between colourful harlots and respectable townsfolk, and the Capulets’ ball. As well as dancing the roles of both Friar Laurence and Lord Montague, the company’s busy Ballet Master Christopher Newton is responsible for the lively and very convincing swordplay.
Nicholas Georgiadis’s sets have not dated a jot in almost 50 years. That for Friar Laurence’s chapel is an especially attractive faux-Byzantine concoction. Beautiful and elaborate costumes of a vaguely early 15th century design complement the production’s warm colour palette – all reds, oranges, umbers and browns.
The Covent Garden orchestra, led with authority and conviction by the experienced Barry Wordsworth, was on fine form for this recording and the results are conveyed in top rate dts Digital Surround sound.
In general the director has filmed this relatively straightforwardly but also very well. There are hardly any “clever” shots that merely serve to draw attention to themselves. We simply see, in general, what we are supposed to be seeing - but with the extra clarity that close-ups and high quality filming provide. The camera is used cleverly to catch a few small, intimate details: at 5:42, for instance, an effective close-up catches Romeo tuning his mandolin. The most gimmicky - but very effective – piece of camerawork is a single shot that zooms in powerfully and at some length on Juliet's face (108:15 – 108:52) while, underneath the shot, Prokofiev’s pulsating score illustrates her inner emotionalturmoil.
As ever, however, it is worth mentioning the regularly encountered drawback of close-up cameras inadvertently revealing too much detail of a stage production. Thus, a “dead” body moves at 14:01, just as, rather later, we see that Romeo is still breathing after his “death”. Close-ups of Juliet’s hands show her making a rather laughable attempt at “playing” the mandolin. At 128:02 we can see some part of the curtain or stage machinery moving in the gloom behind the dancers in close up. All these are very minor points, perhaps, but each momentarily destroys that suspension of disbelief that should be at the core of a theatrical experience.
As well as preserving the performance, this DVD includes some short extras – an interesting ten-minute documentary about Macmillan and his ballet and another five minutes devoted to teaching the male dancers how to fight safely but convincingly with swords. There is also a gallery of pictures of the cast.
The post-production work on the disc might, though, have been a little more carefully done. Does no one double check captions and their punctuation – apostrophes in particular - before they are signed off? Thus, at 21:37 we read that the next scene takes place at “the Capulet’s house”, raising the question of who exactly this singular “the Capulet” might be. Perhaps Opus Arte should invest a few pounds in a copy of Lynne Truss’s bestselling guide to punctuation Eats, shoots & leaves.
As you would expect, during the curtain calls the Covent Garden audience shows its justified appreciation. At that point, too, we at last get a good full-length view of conductor Barry Wordsworth. In doing so, we discover that he is wearing what looks like a rather nifty pair of black jim-jams. Perhaps, after such a successful and no doubt exhausting evening’s work - and rather like the amorous Romeo and Juliet themselves - he just wanted to save time and get as quickly as possible into bed.
Rob Maynard

Performance & recording details
Lauren Cuthbertson - Juliet
Federico Bonelli - Romeo
Alexander Campbell - Mercutio
Bennet Gartside - Tybalt
Dawid Trzensimiech - Benvolio
Valeri Hristov - Paris
Christopher Saunders - Lord Capulet
Christina Arestis - Lady Capulet
Gary Avis - Escalus
Kristen McNally - Nurse
Christopher Newton - Friar Laurence / Lord Montague
Sian Murphy - Lady Montague
Leanne Cope, Elsa Goddard, Elizabeth Harrod, Emma Maguire, Romany Pajdak, Sabina Westcombe - Juliet’s friends
Itziar Meldizabal, Laura McCulloch, Samantha Raine - Three harlots
James Hay, Paul Kay, Ludovic Ondiviela, Andrej Uspenski, James Wilkie, Valentino Zucchetti - Mandolin dance
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Barry Wordsworth
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
Designs by Nicholas Georgiadis
Directed for cinema broadcast and video by Ross MacGibbon
rec. broadcast live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 22 March 2012
Sound formats: LPCM 2.0, dts Digital Surround
Picture format: 16:9
Region code: all regions
DVD-9 double layer disc, NTSC