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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet op.64 (1938, rev. 1940) [116:00]
Choreography by Helgi Tomasson
Juliet - Maria Kochetkova
Romeo - Davit Karapetyan
Mercutio - Pascal Molat
Benvolio - Joseph Walsh
Tybalt - Luke Ingham
Lord Capulet - Ricardo Bustamante
Lady Capulet - Sofiane Sylve
Nurse - Anita Paciotti
Paris - Myles Thatcher
Rosaline - Wanting Zhao
Lord Montague - Rubén Martín Cintas
Lady Montague - Lacey Escabar
Friar Lawrence - Jim Sohm
Prince of Verona - Martino Pistone
San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco Ballet Orchestra/Martin West
rec. 7 May 2015, San Francisco War Memorial Opera House
Filmed in High Definition, mastered from an HD source
Picture format: 1080i 16:9
Sound formats: PCM stereo, DTS 5.0 surround sound
Region code A/B/C
C MAJOR Blu-ray 739104 [128 mins]

Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet is an obvious crowd-pleaser. With its familiar Shakespearean story, its emotionally potent and universally-appreciated theme of doomed young love and its melodious, user-friendly score, it holds its place as probably the most widely popular of 20th century ballets.

Moreover, when it comes to filmed performances on both DVD and Blu-ray, the potential purchaser is pretty well spoiled for choice. If, for instance, you're a particular admirer of London's Royal Ballet, you currently have no less than three outstanding versions of the ballet from which to choose - all of them danced to Kenneth MacMillan's 1965 choreography which, thanks to live cinema relays as well as home entertainment media, is nowadays probably more familiar than any other to worldwide audiences. An iconic performance headed by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev is preserved in Paul Czinner's 1966 feature film (Network DVD 7954387), while the two others, both live performances from the Covent Garden stage, showcase Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo in 2007 (review) and Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli in 2012 (review).

Of course, if you're not a Royal Ballet fan, alternative accounts from several other ballet companies and/or choreographers are also available on film. You can, if you so wish, wallow in nostalgia with the classic performance - if abridged to just 91:00 - headed by Prokofiev's own muse, Galina Ulanova, choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky and originally released as a Soviet feature film in 1954 (VAI DVD 4260). If, on the other hand, you prefer something in more up-to-date technical quality, your choices on DVD or Blu-Ray might include the La Scala company which also dances to MacMillan's choreography, the Lyon Opera Ballet as choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj, the Bolshoi Ballet (a longer version of Lavrovsky) and the Paris Opera Ballet dancing to the choreography of their director Rudolf Nureyev (review ~ review).

With those and other recorded performances amounting to a veritable embarras de richesses, what are the particular attractions of this new account from San Francisco Ballet? For some it may simply be the opportunity to see a major company that, with the notable exception of a must-see version of The nutcracker boasting the most stunningly staged Waltz of the snowflakes that I have ever seen (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7044 D), isn't as well represented in major repertoire on DVD as some of its competitors.

There is, though, far more to this release than mere novelty value. Top of the list of its attractions have to be the performances of its two stars, Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan.

Remembering that Juliet is supposedly only 13 years old - She hath not seen the change of fourteen years, as Lord Capulet says - her physical appearance on stage can sometimes be problematical. Ms Kochetkova is, however, appropriately slightly built and, in spite of celebrating her 30th birthday the year before this performance was filmed, successfully creates a more than usually convincing depiction of a child on the verge of physical and emotional womanhood. Whether initially skipping girlishly and lightheartedly across the stage or, later, exhibiting emotional depths that almost appear to surprise herself, this is a portrayal of Juliet that remains of a piece yet simultaneously demonstrates a credible degree of character development. Moreover, Ms Kochetkova's technique is consistently and skilfully deployed to develop and add to choreographer Helgi Tomasson's conception of the role.

While, as presented here, Juliet emerges as a convincing pubescent girl, there is no parallel attempt to suggest that Davit Karapetyan is the teenage boy of Shakespeare's play. It's not simply a case of age. Although Mr Karapetyan would have been 33 or 34 years old when this performance was filmed, that's not in itself an insuperable barrier to portraying a considerably younger Romeo. Male dancers in their 30s can often carry that trick off convincingly if they are comparatively slightly built and exhibit a youthful demeanour - the Royal Ballet's pocket spitfire, Steven McRae comes to mind as an example. Davit Karapetyan is, however, something else altogether. He is an example of what sometimes appears to be an endangered species these days, the danseur noble. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, one ballet critic offers a particularly neat explanation: These 'ideal' guys need to be tall, dark or fair, and handsome, though according to eighteenth-century traditions, dark hair was de rigeur... [They exhibit] more physical scale than we see on less large individuals, as well as more legibility and visual distinction... [and] when these dancers get to strut their stuff and move as ballet demands, we see further riches. Even if the noble fails to jump quite as high as his shorter, mercurial fellow dancer, he can extra-impress by virtue of the fact that he gets so grand-scaled a physique into the air. We may be delighted to see a streamlined gazelle leap, but we're awestruck by the sight of a Lipizzaner stallion capering its full girth and weight up and off the ground... His manner tends to be stalwart; his mood more grave than mischievous; his emotional temperature more slow burn than red-hot fire. Overall the danseur noble is a pillar of godliness... (Robert Grescovic Ballet: a complete guide [London, 2000] pp. 179-180).

Mr Karapetyan - who has announced that he will be retiring from performance later this year - fits that definition almost to a T. Dark and a little swarthy - almost saturnine - in appearance, as well as strongly built, his mere presence is enough in itself to convey an air of dignity, seriousness, inner depth and sensitivity, even when he is dancing the young gallant about town. While we may not be so used to it today, such a heavyweight "Lipizzaner" portrayal is one that Prokofiev himself would not have found surprising at the time the ballet was composed. I enjoyed it immensely and found that Karapetyan reminded me very much, not only in physique but even in mannerism and gesture, of the Royal Ballet's own danseur noble Zoltan Solymosi, still the best Sleeping beauty prince on DVD (review). I can think of no higher praise than that.

The San Francisco supporting cast is also very fine. Those impetuous young roisterers Mercutio, Benvolio and Tybalt are each well characterised and are danced, moreover, by clearly accomplished artists. I also enjoyed Anita Paciotti's fussily quasi-maternal portrayal of Juliet's nurse. The company's corps de ballet performs with energy and enthusiasm and does a fine job in giving us a well-differentiated selection of those haughty aristocrats, flirtatious young ladies, busy townsfolk, even busier harlots, fearsome soldiers, befuddled if well-meaning clergy and assorted general onlookers who people Prokofiev's vision of Renaissance Verona.

All those characters need lots of physical space, of course, and the set designs by Jens-Jacob Worsaae - who was also responsible for designing the striking and sometimes quite gorgeous costumes - are kept relatively spare and open so as to provide it. They nonetheless add appropriate atmosphere to the production. Meanwhile, Helgi Tomasson's choreography serves Prokofiev's score sympathetically. Never less than effective - and often a great deal more than that - it offers plenty of opportunity for company members to demonstrate their technique, while eschewing anything gratuitously showy that might detract from the on-stage drama.

The performance has been expertly filmed by Thomas Grimm and the quality of both picture and sound is first class. As I have often noted, Blu-ray recordings of ballet performances can sometimes experience problems with fast-moving lateral panning shots but that certainly isn't an issue in this occasion.

What is a disappointment, however, is the poor quality of the information provided in the accompanying booklet. Once again, a Lincoln Center at the movies production comes with unacceptably inadequate documentation, offering nothing about the ballet itself or the artists in this particular production. Instead we get a four-sentence boilerplate puff about the San Francisco company in general, and then a five-page list of names that includes such luminaries as the "Video Truck Technician", the "House Electrician", an "Executive Vice-President, Human Resources and Lincoln Center Operations" and the "Senior Vice-President, Brand & Marketing". These are no doubt very important and capable people - after all, they all boast upper-case initialed titles. They are also no doubt thoroughly charming individuals. But the buyers of this release really don't need to know who they are, while they might well, on the other hand, actually benefit from finding out a little more about Ms Kochetkova, Mr Karapetyan or even Sergei Prokofiev. I also confess myself somewhat mystified as to why San Francisco Ballet has chosen to market its production of Romeo and Juliet as Romeo & Juliet. Maybe someone - in "Brand & Marketing", perhaps? - thinks that an ampersand looks cutting edge or sexy. To me, it makes Prokofiev's ballet sound like a firm of dodgy lawyers.

Those grouses about presentation aside, I warmly welcome this new version of Romeo and Juliet. In a very competitive field it takes one of the very top places. With its charismatic and highly accomplished leading dancers and its unique selling point of the Tomasson choreography, it is well worth your consideration even if you already own a Blu-ray disc or a DVD of any one of the other fine performances mentioned above.

Rob Maynard

 




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