PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet – Blu-ray

Cast: Milan La Scala Ballet  [Complete List of Dancers below]
  Romeo – Roberto Bolle
  Juliet – Misty Copeland
  Mercutio – Antonino Sutera
  Tybalt – Mick Zeni

Music: Milan La Scala Orchestra
Conductor:  Patrick Fournillier
Choreographer: Kenneth MacMillan
Set Designer: Mauro Carosi
Costumes: Odette Nicoletti,
Lighting: Marco Filibeck

Run Time: 160 minutes

DVD Release Date: November 17, 2017
Video: 1.77:1  Color. 
Audio: Dolby, NTSC, Stereo
Subtitles: English, Italian
Extras: None
Dist: Naxos
Rating: ****½

It was originally written with a happy ending. I kid you not. More on that later.

If you purchase any ballets this year, you could not do much better than Romeo and Juliet by Serge Prokofiev. It’s energetic, fast-moving, gloriously musical, and riveting to watch. The cast look like they’re all in their lower 20s, except Juliet’s nurse, but like the others she is a real pro. You may be familiar with its justly famous themes like “The Dance of the Knights.” But you may not have heard that theme twist and gyrate in its many altered forms throughout the ballet, like as a leitmotif when the villainous Tybalt appears.

The dance scene of the principals’ first meeting, featuring the confident Roberto Bolle and the bewitching Misty Copeland, is terrific. At first, in the midst of all the commotion, the two prospective lovers freeze and check out each other. Then she “plays” on a mandolin (wispily performed by mandolinist Christian Fagetti) and Romeo dances about in an entrancing pas seul. Finally, in an acrobatic solo, they quickly approach each other, touch briefly, then part. The ballet is filled with such replay-worthy moments.

We have all seen sword duels in movies and they’re often described by film critics as being “choreographed” by someone, even “balletic.” But there is nothing like seeing a sword fight in a real ballet. This performance has three. The first one between the Montagues and Capulets is not just dazzlingly well done, it whips right through you like a rapier. Of course it’s superbly staged, but you can never tell the artifice from the art because it’s all done so seamlessly. Choreographer Kenneth MacMillan resists symmetry and other affectations of 19th-century ballet production. Even the pile-up casualties at the end is a well-blocked moment. There’s a touch of ironic commentary too, when the two elderly patriarchs duel with each other. Using heavy broad swords. Clumsily. Slowly.

It’s not a perfect undertaking. Sometimes shots border on the hackneyed MTV two-second specials, and sometimes the framing is too wide, as if the cinematographer is as enamored with the beauties of the set instead of Misty Copeland. And why did they decide not to film a dress rehearsal instead of this  live production? Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m starting to hate audience applause. I don’t need to be told who did a particularly fancy pas de deux, thank you.

It’s also not a perfect Blu-ray disc. There are no menu items listing the chapters, so you can’t have your friends over to impress them with your favorite parts. They’ll have to stay for the whole ballet.

Now about that initially planned happy ending? It’s unclear why Prokofiev even signed up for such a bowdlerization of Shakespeare in 1935. However, it provoked such controversy among Soviet cultural officials (for once they were right) that the production was delayed for five years. Perhaps someone thought it would be nice to provide a sunshiny ending to to show in that dark period of Soviet history. So they decided to Hollywoodize Shakespeare, like composer Ambroise Thomas did with his opera Hamlet (1868). But Thomas paid for it with… eternal obscurity. Today his works aren’t even in the repertoire. (Do you own any music by him? Have you heard any? Have you even heard of Ambroise Thomas?)

But we’ve all heard of Prokofiev, and hopefully his place in the repertoire will be assured for centuries to come. It’s interesting that by the ballet’s ending, he transcended all the impresario wranglings by providing his own take. Shakespeare may have had the warring families reconcile after they discover the tragic deaths of their children. But did Prokofiev? No way. The scene closes in that bleak tomb, with no such meeting of the minds of those responsible. Could this possibly imply that none of the characters learned from the tragedy?

—Peter Bates

Dancers:
Romeo – Roberto Bolle, Juliet – Misty Copeland, Mercutio – Antonino Sutera, Tybalt – Mick Zeni, Benvolio – Marco Agostino, Paris – Riccardo Massimi, Lord Capulet – Alessandro Grillo, Lady Capulet – Emanuela Montanari, The Duke – Luigi Saruggia, Rosaline – Chiara Borgia, The Nurse – Monica Vaglietti, Friar Laurence – Matthew Endicott, Mandolin solo – Christian Fagetti, Three Gypsies – Virna Toppi, Denise Gazzo, Beatrice Carbone, Lord Montague – Giuseppe Conte, Lady Montague – Francesca Podini.