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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Ballet after William Shakespeare (1938/1940)
Choreography by John Cranko
Romeo: David Moore, Juliet: Elisa Badenes, Mercutio: Martí Fernández Paixà, Benvolio: Adhonay Soares Da Silva, Tybalt: Robert Robinson, Count Paris: Roman Novitzky, Juliet’s nurse: Marcia Haydée, Lord Capulet: Reid Anderson, Lady Capulet: Melinda Witham, Lord Montague: Matteo Crockard-Villa, Lady Montague: Julia Bergua Orero, Duke of Verona: Rolando D’Alesio, Friar Laurence: Egon Madsen, Rosaline: Rocio Aleman, Gypsies: Katarzyna Kozielska, Ami Morita and Magdalena Dziegielewska, Carnival dancers: Alexander McGowan, Aurora de Mori, Paula Rezende and Louis Stiens
The Stuttgart Ballet
State Theatre Stuttgart Orchestra/James Tuggle
rec. live, State Theatre, Stuttgart, 29/30 April 2017 and 2 May 2017
Filmed in Ultra High Definition
Picture format: 1080i 16:9
Sound format: PCM stereo / DTS-HD MA 5.1
C MAJOR Blu-Ray 801104 [220 mins]

A couple of months ago I reviewed the Stuttgart Ballet Blu-ray disc of choreographer John Cranko’s Onegin. Now another of Cranko’s signature productions arrives as a follow-up release and, judging from the closely matching presentation of both discs, I wonder if we are witnessing the start of a series. I am sure that I am not the only one who would love to see filmed performances of some of the choreographer’s other Stuttgart successes such as The Taming of the Shrew or Carmen if such things exist in the company’s archives.

Even if Cranko’s work is not as widely appreciated today as it might be, critics during his lifetime were certainly in no doubt as to his importance. In 1967 the Daily Telegraph’s A.V. Coton considered him “one of the most imaginative young directors of a European company today” (quoted in A.V. Coton Writings on Dance [London, 1975], p. 119), while Richard Buckle of The Sunday Times, writing a year after the choreographer’s death, admiringly remarked that he had “had a remarkable fluency of invention in the classical style, he was very clever at telling a story in dancing, and he had a marvellous sense of theatre” (quoted in Richard Buckle Buckle at the Ballet [London, 1980], p. 323).

As Buckle’s words suggest, one of Cranko’s greatest strengths lay in choreographing compelling narrative-based ballets – a point re-emphasised in this release’s brief booklet essay where Angela Reinhardt praises his ability to create “authentic characters, a plausible story and last but not least excellent dance”. Shakespeare’s familiar story offered him, it goes without saying, a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate those talents. In which case, we might ask, why have we not seen Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet more often? The answer is that within three years of its Stuttgart premiere it had been eclipsed by Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 production for the Royal Ballet that, with its high-profile stars Fonteyn and Nureyev and a worldwide cinema version released within a year or two, quickly became far better known. That in itself was somewhat ironic, given the many obvious similarities between the two versions. One famous story has it that when Cranko took a friend to see MacMillans’s production, the friend said that he’d wished he’d seen Cranko’s own version too – to which the choreographer replied “You just have” (quoted in Jann Parry Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan [London, 2009], p. 284). More recently, reviewing a Stuttgart Ballet performance of the Cranko production in 2008, The Observer’s critic Luke Jennings made, if not so bluntly, much the same point, observing that “MacMillan borrows so liberally and unambiguously from Cranko’s version that at times the eyes widen in disbelief… Everybody steals – Cranko’s version owes much to Leonid Lavrovsky’s 1940 production for the Kirov – but this is more fervent homage than most choreographers permit themselves”.

A MusicWeb International review is certainly not the place for a finely detailed discussion of choreographic technicalities, but suffice it to say that if you have watched the MacMillan production, either in a live performance or else on film (review) for a brief recent overview), you will indeed see many similarities with this Stuttgart performance. There are some interesting differences too, however. Looking at the respective ballets’ emotional centres, it’s fair to say that while MacMillan’s production invites us to focus more on the character of Juliet, Cranko creates more of an equal balance between the two young lovers – though, as we learn from the extra feature included on this Blu-ray disc, another reason why he gave the role of Juliet only one solo variation was the purely practical one that that the original dancer in the role, Marcia Haydée, disliked dancing alone on stage. With regard to the more practical matters of staging, Cranko’s production is characterised by generally brighter, less claustrophobic and visually oppressive sets. That’s most obviously the case when we first meet Friar Lawrence: in MacMillan’s production he’s encountered in a gloomy Byzantine-style chapel, whereas Cranko has him strolling through the brightly sunlit fields outside Verona. Cranko also keeps his stage rather more airy and uncluttered during the scenes set in the city square, favouring more stylised and even formally geometric patterns of dancers as opposed to the ‘spontaneously disorganised’ groupings of townsfolk favoured by MacMillan. By the way, mentioning those townsfolk, the two productions illustrate in passing a significant development in the social history of the 1960s. By 1965 MacMillan, taking advantage of the rapidly liberalising spirit of the age, clearly portrayed prostitutes on his stage, whereas in 1962 Cranko’s equivalent characters had come across as merely rather flirtatious young women. But then, as Philip Larkin noted memorably in his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three/ […] / Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.”

The Stuttgart dancers carry off their performance with great aplomb. I last encountered Elisa Badenes and David Moore – who dance the title roles here – in the aforementioned performance of Onegin. In the latter they had taken the secondary roles of Olga and Lensky, but, promoted on this occasion to centre-stage, they prove to be a charismatic and technically accomplished couple who hold one’s attention throughout. The supporting roles are filled with equally skilled dancers and this is clearly a strong company dancing to its strengths and with no discernible weak links. Two of the women make particularly strong impressions, however, and deserve individual mentions. Melinda Witham possesses a strong physical presence and creates a compellingly disturbing Lady Capulet, while Stuttgart veteran Marcia Haydée – Cranko’s original Juliet, and the company’s director between 1976 and 1995 – is received with immense affection by the audience as she takes the role of Juliet’s nurse.

With idiomatic playing from the State Theatre Stuttgart Orchestra under James Tuggle and discrete yet expert video direction by Michael Beyer, this release will be of the greatest interest to anyone who already enjoys Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in the more familiar MacMillan version. An accompanying 93-minutes-long filmed discussion between Marcia Haydée – celebrating her 80th birthday - and her two successors as Stuttgart Ballet director, Reid Anderson and Tamas Detrich, is not only enlightening but also entertaining, as the apparently indefatigable Ms Haydée regales a live audience with fascinating recollections and anecdotes from her illustrious career.

Rob Maynard


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