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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet – ballet (1938) [137:00]
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
Juliet: Yasmine Naghdi, Romeo: Matthew Ball, Mercutio: Valentino Zucchetti, Tybalt: Gary Avis, Benvolio: Benjamin Ella
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Pavel Sorokin
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon
1080i Blu-ray disc; 16:9, All regions
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0 and dts-HD Master Audio
OPUS ARTE Blu-ray OABD7273D [149 mins]

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is surely one of the most immediately appealing ballet scores composed in the 20th century. While, however, the music itself remains much the same wherever you hear it, what you see on stage may vary considerably around the world. Russian ballet companies, for example, tend to stick with the original 1940 Leonid Lavrovsky choreography, which may be seen in a classic feature-film version starring Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeyev on VAI DVD 4260, or with Yuri Grigorovich’s 1979 Bolshoi Ballet production, of which we badly need a new recording filmed to the highest modern standards. French audiences, on the other hand, are more likely to encounter Rudolf Nureyev’s choreography in a Paris Opera Ballet production (review) which was added to the company’s repertoire during his tenure as its director. Meanwhile, German balletomanes may well have soft spots for the productions created by John Cranko for Stuttgart Ballet in 1962 (review)) or that devised in the 1970s by John Neumeier for Frankfurt Ballet.

By far and away the best-known choreography for Romeo and Juliet is, however, that originally produced for the Royal Ballet in 1965 by Kenneth MacMillan. Although now frequently performed by other companies all over the world (review), it remains such an iconic calling card for the Covent Garden company that, over the years, its star dancers’ performances have been repeatedly filmed for posterity. Spoiled-for-choice Royal Ballet fans may thus consider versions starring the roles’ original dancers Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev (Network 7954387), Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling (NVC Arts 0630-19393-2), Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta (review) and Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli (review). More recently, the company’s dancers may be seen in the feature-film Romeo and Juliet - beyond words (review) which, in spite of a somewhat foreshortened score, showcased dancing of the highest artistry while offering an unparalleled and highly cinematic feast for the senses.

If, of course, your primary interest in considering this new release is Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography and you already have one of the Blu-ray discs or DVDs mentioned in the last paragraph, then there’s no real need to consider this new release at all. However, the Royal Ballet and Opus Arte clearly believe that they are tapping into a market of enthusiastic balletomanes who will buy several versions of the same Covent Garden production simply to see new dancers take on the leading roles.

How, then, does this particular cast stand up to scrutiny? For me, the standout performance is that of Yasmine Naghdi as Juliet. She is clearly entirely at home with the characteristic elements of MacMillan’s choreographic style and successfully combines impressive technique with an utterly convincing portrayal of emotions that range from wide-eyed childlike innocence to burgeoning sexual awareness. I can offer no higher praise than that she delivers a performance that’s at least the equal of any of her Royal Ballet predecessors.

Matthew Ball recently gave a most accomplished performance as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet – beyond words. Promoted now to the lead male role, he successfully emphasises Romeo’s youthful playfulness. However, at times he can also appear somewhat self-effacing and a little low key. While it may be unfair to compare his interpretation with those of more experienced dancers, it would be remiss to deny that the likes of, say, Roberto Bolle (review) or, as seen in Helgi Tomasson’s choreography for San Francisco Ballet, Davit Karapetyan (review) exhibit greater emotional depth in the role.

I remember enjoying Ball’s performance as Mercutio in the Romeo and Juliet – beyond words film and perhaps that less emotionally complex, more single-dimensional role is a better fit for him at this stage of his career. In this new video release, it certainly suits the charismatic Valentino Zucchetti who, impulsively stirring up trouble whenever he’s on stage, becomes the invariable focus of our attention. Zucchetti has recently been developing his skills as a Covent Garden choreographer but it might, I think, be an interesting experience if we were ever to see his own take on the role of Romeo.

Another dancer who makes a notable impact is Gary Avis, taking the role of Mercutio’s nemesis Tybalt. We are more used, these days, to seeing Avis portraying older figures such as Herr Drosselmeyer in The nutcracker (review ~ review), Coppélia’s Dr Coppélius (review) or one of the young Jacqueline du Pré’s adult cello teachers in Cathy Marston’s The cellist (review). Indeed, whenever we’ve encountered him in earlier filmed productions of Romeo and Juliet, it’s been in the role of a stalwartly middle-aged Prince of Verona, desperately trying to keep the peace between the warring Montagues and Capulets (review ~ review). On this occasion, however, he is given far more opportunity to display his acting ability, whether as a convincingly-delivered drunk or something of a remorseful lost soul who intermittently – and sadly too late - realises just how unreasonable his behaviour has been. The result is the most interesting portrayal of Tybalt that I can recall seeing for quite some time.

Anyone familiar with the Covent Garden production will already be aware of Nicholas Georgiadis’s strikingly attractive designs and its gorgeous – generically 15th century – costumes. They, and the dancers, are expertly recorded on film here under the expert direction of Ross MacGibbon who, incidentally, also recorded the earlier Rojo/Acosta and Cuthbertson/Bonelli performances. Meanwhile, Prokofiev’s score is delivered colourfully and idiomatically by conductor Pavel Sorokin, who also demonstrates a keen appreciation of the need to accommodate it to the capabilities of the dancers on stage.

To end with, though, a minor grumble… While, as usual, a few extra short films bulk out the disc, it seems a wasted opportunity when one of them – Sword fighting in Romeo and Juliet – tackles a subject that had already been examined in the previous Cuthbertson/Bonelli disc’s feature Sword fighting: sharp points and pirouettes. All too often such “bonus” material or “extras” on discs seem something of an afterthought, whereas in reality they offer a great opportunity to enhance viewers’ pleasure quite substantially. When Unitel added an additional 102 minutes to Stuttgart Ballet’s Onegin (review) and a further 93 minutes to the same company’s Romeo and Juliet as choreographed by John Cranko (review), it performed an invaluable service to viewers in search of background information in far greater depth. Is it too much to hope that Opus Arte might, before too long, also raise the standard of its extras to match the almost invariably high quality of its main features?

Rob Maynard

Other performers
Paris: Nicol Edmonds, Lord Capulet: Christopher Saunders, Lady Capulet: Christina Arestis, Nurse: Kristen McNally, Juliet’s friends: Leticia Dias, Isabewlla Gasparini, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Chisato Katsura, Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Gemma Pitchley-Gale, Three harlots: Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Mica Bradbury, Romany Padjak, Mandolin dance: Marcelino Sambé, Luca Acri, Téo Dubreuil, Paul Kay, Tomas Mock, Calvin Richardson, Lord Montague: Jonathan Howells, Lady Montague: Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani, Friar Laurence: Jonathan Howells, Escalus: Thomas Whitehead, Rosaline: Fumi Kaneko
Artists of the Royal Ballet

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