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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 Ballet in four acts (1935-36; revised: 1939)
Juliet - Yasmine Naghdi; Romeo - Matthew Ball; Mercutio - Valentino Zucchetti; Tybalt - Gary Avis; Benvolio - Benjamin Ella; Paris - Nicol Edmonds; Lord Capulet - Christopher Saunders; Lady Capulet - Christina Arestis; Nurse - Kristen McNally; Escalus - Thomas Whitehead; Rosaline - Fumi Kaneko; Friar Laurence/Lord Montague - Jonathan Howells; Lady Montague - Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani; Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Mica Bradbury, Romany Pajdak – Three Harlots.
Royal Ballet & Royal Opera House Orchestra/Pavel Sorokin
Kenneth MacMillan – Choreographer
Nicholas Georgiadis – Set and Costume Designer
John B. Read – Lighting Designer
Sound format: LPCM 2.0; 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio; Picture format: 1080i High Definition
Four Extra Features – Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean
rec. 1 and 11 June 2019 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK
Reviewed in stereo
OPUS ARTE OABD7273D Blu-ray [151 mins]

It seems the Royal Ballet has had great success with Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, both in the theater and on recording. Indeed, within just the past decade there have been two recordings of live performances and a film version, all on the Opus Arte label. I haven't seen the 2019 film version but later I'll be examining the other live account, which dates from 2012. All three versions use Kenneth MacMillan's choreography, which was premiered by the Royal Ballet in 1965 and used by the company for hundreds of performances since. MacMillan (1929-92) has a way with this ballet: the dance moves, gestures, poses and other body movements, always seem to fully capture the feelings and motivations of the characters, as well as the essence of the story itself. His choreography is certainly one of the finest ever created for this Prokofiev masterpiece.

Of course, to effectively bring off any performance of this ballet, one needs a pair of superb dancers in the leads, ones who can also act with their facial expressions, gestures and with every movement of their body. Fortunately, we have two here who fill the bill in just about every way. Yasmine Naghdi is a very petite and fragile Juliet, graceful and lovely on her feet and utterly convincing in her dramatic skills. Her dancing exudes a deft sense of knowing precisely how to move and gesture with an arresting lithesome quality. She becomes Juliet, the teenage girl whose love of Romeo is forbidden by her family's foolish prejudice. Ms. Naghdi also divulges a keen sense about knowing precisely what her partner and other dancers are doing and how to react or interact.

Matthew Ball has a very youthful appearance, like his partner, and he seems the perfect match for her. In Balcony Scene (track 24) the sparks truly fly: the passion and love of the young couple reach full bloom and both Ball and Naghdi dance with such gracefulness and skill throughout. Clearly, they are one of the best duos to dance in these roles. On the lighter side, in Masks (track 13) Ball, along with Valentino Zucchetti as Mercutio and Benjamin Ella as Benvolio, deliver one of the most charming dances in the ballet. Beatriz Stix-Brunell as the lead Harlot is outstanding, often nearly stealing the show when she's on stage. Gary Avis as Tybalt is also quite fine and the rest of the cast is more than adequate.

Conductor Pavel Sorokin is mostly very convincing in his handling of Prokofiev's complex score. He is especially adept at capturing the sense of passionate love between Romeo and Juliet, as the string-dominated music in the aforementioned Balcony Scene soars gorgeously to the heavens. Here many conductors take the music too fast, but Sorokin allows the love themes to breathe and exude warmth and passion. He also finds just the right tempo and imparts the proper weight to the menacing Dance of the Knights (track 14).

Though he is effective throughout most of the score, sometimes his tempos are a bit too slow. For example, in Romeo dances for Juliet (track 17) the music sounds a bit flaccid, taking some of the underlying tension away from this scene wherein Romeo, masked, is dancing at a ball attended mainly by members of the adversarial Capulet family. In Romeo dances with his friends (track 28) the playfulness and energy of the music are again hampered by the restrained tempo. Instrumental balances are an occasional problem as well. In Mandolin Dance (track 29), for instance, the brass instruments carrying the theme are often intruded upon by secondary lines from woodwinds and tambourine. Also, in The Prince's Command (track 8), the trumpets are given short shrift in the sound field alongside the more assertive horns. There are a few flaws then, but Sorokin is nevertheless generally quite effective in capturing the drama and passion of Prokofiev's music.

The costuming seems reasonably authentic, especially in the more lavish attire worn by the elder Montagues and Capulets and attendants. The sets and lighting are quite fine as well. The camera work and picture clarity are state of the art, but oddly the sound reproduction has a problem or two. I made some comparisons with the other recorded performance by the Royal Ballet I referred to in the opening paragraph, led by Barry Wordsworth and featuring Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli in the leads. There the sound reproduction is noticeably better in the fight scene (track 7), for instance. Further, for some reason, the strings sometimes have a comparatively scrawny sound for Sorokin compared with Wordsworth's string section. Try for just one example, the pivotal Balcony Scene, where Wordsworth's strings actually sound a bit larger in number. It's puzzling since for both recordings we have the same venue and orchestra and the same label, which presumably used similar recording techniques. Perhaps the difference in each conductor's style regarding dynamics explains this disparity, at least in part. At any rate the sound reproduction on this new recording is still more than adequate, but just not quite at the same superb level of the Wordsworth version.

By the way, Wordsworth tends to use tempos quite similar to those of Sorokin, but is overall a bit more persuasive in his phrasing. Both versions, incidentally, feature a minimum of cuts in this ballet but, like most live performances, reduce the four acts to three. There are some extra features included on this new Blu-ray disc which are interesting though brief. I've listed them below.

There are five other recordings of this ballet on video that deserve comment. On Arthaus Musik there is a 1989 Bolshoi effort, led by Algis Zhuraitis, that has its strong points, but its age rather weakens its appeal for those not wanting older sound and video quality. There is an excellent Paris Opera Ballet version on Kultur featuring choreography by Rudolf Nureyev and led by Vello Pähn, but its 1995 technical features will also be a liability for some potential buyers. A Teatro alla Scala Ballet production on Euroarts from 2000, led by David Garforth, offers fine dancing but employs a number of cuts and uses different (and inferior) orchestration in several numbers, probably the work of Boris Pogrebov who was engaged by misguided Soviet arts administrators to do some re-orchestrating. From the San Francisco Ballet on C Major there is a fine performance of the ballet from 2015, led by Martin West that is also significantly cut.

Finally, there is 2019 effort from the Ural Opera Ballet on Bel Air Classiques, led by Pavel Klinichev, which I reviewed and found mostly quite fine. But it too features a fair number of cuts and its modernized aspects won't find favor with some ballet mavens: the 14th century setting is updated and choreographer Vyacheslav Samodurov makes use of popular early 20th century dance styles. Still, it's a most appealing production if you want to break from tradition. In the end though, my preference in Romeo and Juliet on video comes down to the two live versions from the Royal Ballet. Either one will prove rewarding, but the Barry Wordsworth account holds the edge over this new effort.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Rob Maynard

Why The Royal Ballet love dancing Romeo and Juliet [4:47]
Darcey Bussell joins Yasmine Naghdi for a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet [3:49]
Sword Fighting in Romeo and Juliet [3:32]
Cast gallery [1:18]

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