Prokofiev sold his soul for a Shakespeare play.
Shortly after Prokofiev had moved to Paris, Stalin lured him back to Russia to become the country’s command composer, with a deal that allowed him to write any opera or ballet that he wished. This would successfully crown him as Russia’s most celebrated composer, particularly after Shostakovich was censured following the premiere of Lady Macbeth. Prokofiev made a first draft of Romeo and Juliet, complete with three exotic dances with some of his most inventive themes and a happy ending that saved two lovers from dying, instead running off to happiness in a faraway land. Stalin heavily censored the ballet, insisting that it conclude according to the Bard, and and insisting upon the ripping apart of whole sections. Up until the 2000s, it was believed that Prokofiev did not entirely mind the changes, until an original score was found with much more to the story. On Thursday, Boston Ballet commenced its Boston Opera House run of a Stalin-approved Romeo and Juliet, adapted for the stage by South African choreographer John Cranko in 1962. The run continues through April 8th.
Cranko’s retelling is perhaps the most vivid and transformative of all of the interpretations of Romeo and Juliet. Boston Ballet has previously used this choreography in 2008 and 2011, but this year, the set and costumes were new to this region. Jürgen Rose designed the set and costumes for this production from the 1968 performance in Stuttgart, although he also designed a different set for Cranko’s 1962 premiere. The set was perhaps the most striking part of the evening. Although simple in conception, with a courtyard that sometimes transformed into a bedroom (and later a crypt) and a walkway above, the backdrop and careful lighting (designed by Kevin Dreyer) set the tone for each scene. Most unusual was the dark lighting and gorgeous set used in the moonlit scene where Romeo comes to Juliet’s window. The final scene in the crypt cast a dark shadow over the stage, the focus solely on the downtrodden lovers.
Cranko’s choreography cleverly depicts the immature nature of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship, complete with a flirtatious scene at the start between Romeo and another woman, just as lust-struck as the first moment he saw Juliet. Juliet clings to her nurse and plays peek-a-boo with her in a childlike manner, not ready to depart from the motherly grasp of her nurse’s arms. Throughout, Juliet’s unsureness and inexperience is pointedly featured, while Romeo’s choreography outlines his flirtatious and hormonal-driven attitude.
Mariinsky resident conductor Gavriel Heine led the evening, offering robust energy to the pit of the Boston Ballet Orchestra. The orchestra followed suit, phrasing some spots with such fury that I found myself constantly wishing for the pit to be elevated for better projection. Brass and woodwinds lead the ensemble to a beefy, resilience. Heine guest conducts until March 25th, and Mischa Santora takes the helm on March 29th until April 8th.
Misa Kuranaga portrayed Juliet with innocent expressions, hesitant turns, and childlike excitement. Paulo Arrais played a convincing Romeo, offering flirtatious, boyish charms towards every female character before transforming into the martyr that would only truly love Juliet. Crowd favorite Derek Dunn danced Mercutio. His impressive twirls, humorous head bobs, and tragically-portrayed death scene stole the entire evening. Dunn has been with the company since 2017 and originally comes from Glen Burnie, Maryland.
The choreography, thoughtfully conceived, offered a dramatic retelling of the play, complete with gestures that heightened the actions of the scene and emotions of the characters. The most impressive execution came in the form of a gypsy carnival scene in the second act, with expert footwork from the entire company. Arguably the most heart-wrenching but impactful moment came from Mercutio, whose death scene featured an elaborate knife fight with Tybalt (Eris Nezha), humorous coyness with female characters after being stabbed, and slow struggle to death. Romeo’s fight with Tybalt that followed was similarly striking.
Although the Boston Ballet brilliantly mounted Romeo and Juliet with a fresh, new set, it would be wonderful to eventually see a retelling of the story as Prokofiev original intended. Boston Ballet revived the production in 2008 and again in 2011; since this story remains in the repertoire, an extended reworking would be a refreshing change to the long-accepted, Stalin-approved number. The original ballet has been retold once with choreography by Mark Morris, premiered in 2008 and performed by the American Symphony Orchestra in New York.
Romeo and Juliet runs at the Boston Opera House until April 8th.
Ed. Note: This review has been edited post publication.
Rachael Fuller is an MIT administrator who has studied piano and music theory. By night, the concertgoer is also a practicing musicologist.