Gergiev Romeo & Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 – a ballet in three acts and an epilogue

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 June, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The most popular full-length ballet after those by Tchaikovsky it may be, but Romeo and Juliet is seldom heard in the concert hall. Prokofiev’s concert suites show up, as – even more frequently – do varying combinations of their movements, but the chance to hear the complete score, conducted by the present-day ‘guardian’ of the Russian tradition, promised to be something of an event.

One thing worth noting about the ballet is the unequal but effective duration of its three acts. At almost an hour, Act One is itself longer than any of Stravinsky’s ballets: traversing a Shakespearean scenario from the appearance of Romeo, through the conflict between Montagues and Capulets, and the presentation of Juliet, to the Capulets’ Ball – culminating with the Balcony Scene. An act whose discursiveness lends itself naturally to dance, but which can easily hang fire when the music is heard on its own. Prokofiev counters this with probably the most intensively-worked system of leitmotifs in any ballet – characterising not only the main protagonists, but also incidents whose implications colour the drama; in particular, the ascending chromatic motif that emerges in ‘The Quarrel’ and reappears at moments of crisis – unifying the work to a degree appreciable only when the score is played in full. Apart from a marginal drop in tension during the set-pieces of the Ball scene, Gergiev maintained a firm overall continuity, ensuring an expressive frisson in the extended closing sequence.

Less impressive was Act Two – which, starting with too brusque a ‘Folk Dance’, lacked subtlety in the telling musical differentiation between the lovers’ successive meetings with Friar Laurence, then proceeded in too stop-start a fashion through the Duel scene and subsequent deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. The sheer heft of the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s playing was impressive, but the underlying sense of momentum was intermittent at best.

Interesting that the comparatively inward demeanour of Act Three was more persuasively realised. The sequence of Romeo and Juliet’s farewell may be more compact and hence seamless in the concert version, but the rhapsodic follow-through of the ballet is one of the finest instances of the work’s symphonic cohesion, while the sequence of Juliet’s visit to Friar Laurence and her ill-fated attempt at feigning death has beguiling airiness and understatement which Gergiev was clearly at pains to emphasise. Best of all is the music for Juliet’s farewell and death in the Epilogue, which draws together the ballet’s motivic threads with consummate skill and mines an emotional ambiguity in its veering between the tragic and the fatalistic which the suites can only hint at.

Qualities that were palpably conveyed in this performance – and, moreover, with a technical security and expressive conviction hardly likely in the theatre. Clearly Gergiev’s 15-year association with the Rotterdam orchestra has paid off handsomely in combining textural richness with the incisiveness that can, with this conductor, border on the insistent. Yet as in the finest of his Prokofiev symphony cycle at the Barbican, there was little doubting the emotional sincerity nor sustained intensity of his response to a piece which, if not the most profound of Prokofiev’s large-scale works, is without doubt his most communicative in its treatment of an age-old and indelible theme.

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