Three semi-staged concerts of Prokofievs famous ballet mark the beginning of a two-week LSO series celebrating the 75th-birthday of Mstislav Rostropovich.
With wonderful orchestral playing and great individual performances from the Lithuanian National Ballet, this production was conceived by Rostropovich and Vasiliev in the late 1980s and attempts to form a close partnership between all the participants orchestral and dance alike. In this staging at the Barbican, the LSO are pushed to the back of the stage and the dancers of the Lithuanian National Ballet are presented at the front of an extended stage and also on a raised stage behind the orchestra. There was not much room for the dancers, but they did not seem to be hindered and negotiated the two sets of stairs connecting the two stages nimbly. However, it was never completely possible to push from ones mind thoughts of impending disaster although nothing untoward happened.
Prokofiev reached a high point with this music, which he composed very quickly producing the piano score in five months during the summer and autumn of 1935. His compositional technique and rhetorical style combines all his youthful aggression, satire and irony with the lyricism that he had always possessed but rarely showed. This stems not only from Shakespeares tragic story but also the time when the music was written: this was the period of Soviet show-trials, whose resultant effect on all spheres of life was cataclysmic. The piece essentially marks Prokofievs mature style and marks a very productive phase.
Both leading players, Juliet played by Egle Spokaite and Georgi Smilevski as Romeo, developed a superb rapport especially in their main scene, the Grand Pas de deux that closes Act One. The orchestral playing was never intrusive during these tender moments and complemented rather than competed. The string playing throughout was especially good, especially in very quiet passages. Any intonation problems from the horn section in Act One were as fleeting as Spokaites delightful depiction of Juliets childlike and spirited qualities.
Mercutio as played by Valerij Fadeev brought extraordinary humour especially in Act Two/scene three with Benvolio (Raimundas Maskaliunas) and Baltasar (Eligijus Butkus). Prokofiev uses scherzo-style themes for Mercutios scenes that utilise quirky jumps in the melodic line. The LSO was superlative in moments of sprightliness and joviality. All Acts required the appearance of additional orchestral players: mainly brass but also mandolins positioned on the raised stage. The Second Act required the most players and the stage looked very cramped. Only once though, just before Mercutios death, did the orchestral playing become momentarily confused. The mandolin sequence was an uproarious parody though. Fadeev was irrepressible. He captured all the absurdity of his final moments as the joker who dies only to repeatedly resurrect himself. The main artists were well supported by the rest of the troupe bedecked in gaily-coloured pastel shades.
Ironically, some of the most poignant moments came in the Third Act with the return of the mandolins, which truly captured the hollow humour of the situation. The plucky mandolin ensemble outgunned the exquisitely played violin solo on the raised stage. The violin was a lost soul and sounded quite pitiful; the four-piece brass ensemble that stood with the mandolinists played a beautifully intoned chorale harmonisation.
Juliets death scene in the Epilogue (Act Four) was extraordinarily powerful with superb orchestral playing with fine balance between the various sections and in particular the woodwind, stretched along the back of the stage, provided eerieness to the end. Only the cellos, positioned with their backs to the audience and in the middle of the stage, intruded a little. This aural disturbance was offset visually by the sight of all the dancers silently filling the stage in almost complete darkness, dressed in cloaks and holding candles.
- Further performance of Romeo & Juliet tonight, 16 March at 7.30
- Rostropovich conducts Shostakovichs Symphony No.11, 19 & 20 March
- Box Office: 020 7628 2326 a www.barbican.org.uk