Romeo & Juliet/Rozhdestvensky

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

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 March, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gives a select number of concerts in the Royal Albert Hall – making the appearance of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, in what had been billed a ‘complete’ account of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, an event not to be missed. In fact, the veteran Russian conductor made numerous cuts in a score that is – in the tradition of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty – both symphonically conceived and organically cohesive.

As Valery Gergiev demonstrated in a memorable concert performance of the complete ballet two years ago, Prokofiev’s music retains much of its expressive immediacy heard rather than seen; certainly more so than if a mere selection of movements (from either the actual ballet or the three suites) is presented. Easing the orchestra into the task ahead, Rozhdestvensky kept the ‘Introduction’ on a loose but atmospheric reign – emphasising incidental detail during the street scene of Act One, and only ratcheting up the tension appreciably at the point where the Prince forcibly intervenes in the dispute between Montagues and Capulets, then duly implacable in the dissonant Interlude that follows.

The character numbers that open the scene of the Capulet Ball were affectionate without being indulgent – the famous ‘Dance of the Knights’ suitably portentous – without anticipating the emotional frisson during the extended sequence that comprises the ‘Balcony Scene’ and ‘Love Dance’. With the RPO suitably galvanised, the result electrified to a degree that those who can remember the pick of Rozhdestvensky’s London concerts two decades ago will appreciate. Much of Act Two was on a par with this – notably an effortlessly witty ‘Dance with Mandolins’ (all four present and correct), and a warmly sonorous scene with ‘Friar Laurence’ (organ included). In the sequence that brings the deaths of both Mercutio and Tybalt, momentum built gradually but powerfully – the climactic funeral march properly crushing in its dynamism and intensity. The interval could not have arrived more presciently.

So far, so excellent – passing shortcomings in ensemble counting for little when the music-making evinced this level of immediacy. Unfortunately, Rozhdestvensky’s cuts – mere trimmings before the interval – took a heavy toll of Act Three. The scene of Romeo and Juliet’s leave-taking lacked nothing in emotional gravitas, but to jump from there directly to the middle of the third scene (and out of sync with the programme annotation) made a mockery of the ballet’s proportions. ‘Morning Serenade’ was attractively fresh and ‘Dance of the Girls with Lilies’ exquisitely nuanced, but these went for very little when the act overall had been so dissected. Even the Epilogue was short- changed, with Juliet’s funeral and death becoming a broken-backed end to the evening.

The outcome was a tale of two, glaringly unequal, halves of around 74 and 24(!) minutes respectively. Perhaps Rozhdestvensky had planned to continue straight through, unaware of a mandatory interval to be fitted in. Whatever the case, it was a desperately disappointing way to round off an evening that had earlier promised, and delivered, so much. A pity, too, given the Royal Philharmonic was working with a figure of Rozhdestvensky’s stature: one who, for all his idiosyncrasies of technique, has an uncanny ability to put an orchestra on its mettle so that the playing inspires as well as delights. Such was true of much that was heard here, making one hope that his return to the RPO will not be long in coming. To which end – how about putting on Prokofiev’s Cinderella, uncut, this Christmas?

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