Premiere: 11 January 1940, Kirov Theatre of Opera and Ballet (Mariinsky)
Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes
The performance has two intervals
Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Libretto by Andrian Piotrovsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Radlov and Leonid Lavrovsky, based on the tragedy by William Shakespeare
Choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky
Set and costume design by Pyotr Williams
Lighting Adaptation for the Mariinsky II by Andrei Ponizovsky and Yegor Kartashov
It is early one morning. Romeo, dreaming of love, wanders through the deserted streets of Verona. Little by little, all sorts of people fill the square and the first customers arrive at the inn.
Tybalt, noticeably drunk, is on his way home. He sees Benvolio and, drawing his sword, attacks him immediately. The peaceful square turns into a scene of fierce fighting between the supporters of the Montague and Capulet households. Swords cross, people are killed and the alarm is sounded.
Paris, a young nobleman, appears. He has come to ask for the hand of Juliet, the beautiful daughter of Old Capulet. Nobody heeds him. Old Capulet himself is seen running out of his house, eager to play a part in the encounter with the Montagues.
The Duke of Verona and his guards appear in the square. The people implore him to put a stop to the bloodshed. The Duke commands them to drop their weapons, and issues a decree stating that anyone who bares arms in the streets of Verona will be sentenced to death.
Juliet playfully teases her old nurse, who is helping her dress for the imminent ball. Juliet’s mother enters and scolds her daughter for her childishness.
Guests pass in a ceremonious parade to the ball at the Capulets’ house. Paris is amongst them, accompanied by his page. Romeo’s friends, the witty Mercutio and the loyal Benvolio, persuade
him to go to the ball with them. The young men put on masks; without them they cannot go to the feast because of the feud between the two families.
Romeo and his friends enter the Capulets’ palace. Romeo is captivated by Juliet’s beauty and cannot conceal his emotions. By accident, his mask slips, revealing his face to Juliet. She falls in love with the youth.
Tybalt recognises Romeo as an enemy of the Capulets and hurries off to tell Old Capulet that Romeo has dared to come to the ball. Romeo and his friends leave the house to avoid trouble.
On a moonlit balcony of the Capulets’ house, Juliet dreams of seeing Romeo again.
Her dream comes true as Romeo appears in the garden below. He stretches out his arms to her in an expression of love. A moment later, they are together. They tenderly declare their love and vow eternal fidelity to each other.
In the noisy gaiety of the square in Verona, Juliet’s nurse hands Romeo a letter from her young mistress. Romeo reads it with delight, for Juliet has agreed to be his wife.
Friar Lawrence is happily passing the day in his quiet cell. Romeo enters and begs the monk to wed him to Juliet in secret. The friar promises to help, hoping that the marriage will reconcile the Montagues and the Capulets and thus end the feud. Juliet enters and Friar Lawrence performs the wedding rites.
Mercutio, Benvolio and their friends have come to the inn. Tybalt enters and, upon seeing his enemies, he draws his sword and rushes at Mercutio. Romeo tries to make peace between them. Tybalt pushes him away. Tybalt and Mercutio cross swords. Romeo again attempts to separate them, but Tybalt, seizing a favourable moment, deals Mercutio a treacherous blow and kills him.
Romeo is wild with fury at the death of his friend. He draws his sword and challenges Tybalt to a duel. Tybalt is killed. Benvolio, frightened, points to the decree posted by the Duke of Verona and leads his friend away. Tybalt’s kinsmen gather round his dead body and swear vengeance on the House of Montague.
Romeo has come to bid farewell to Juliet. He is ready to flee Verona, having violated the Duke’s decree. As the rays of the morning sun stream into the room, Romeo takes leave of his beloved. The nurse comforts Juliet, who is heart-broken at her separation from Romeo. Juliet’s parents enter the room, and her mother tells her that her marriage to Paris has been arranged. Paris, who has also come in, declares his love for Juliet; she listens to his passionate avowals, but refuses
to comply with her parents’ wish. When Paris has left the room, they shower her with reproaches. Her father says firmly that he is determined to have his way.
Juliet is in despair. She makes up her mind to go to Friar Lawrence for advice.
Juliet comes to Friar Lawrence’s cell. The monk is touched by the tale of her boundless love for Romeo and gives her a potion. His plan is that she will drink the potion and fall into a deep sleep. She will be thought dead, and her body will be taken to the family vault – in an open coffin according to the ancient custom of the country. Meanwhile, Friar Lawrence will write to Romeo who is hiding in Mantua and summon him back to Verona. The young man will return at once.
Juliet will have awoken by that time and Romeo will take her away with him back to Mantua.
When Juliet returns home, she pretends to have submitted to her parents’ will. She takes the potion and falls into a deep sleep. Juliet’s friends come in with bunches of flowers and, unable to find her, believe her to be still asleep. Her parents enter, accompanied by Paris. The nurse draws
the curtains of Juliet’s bed aside. All are paralysed with horror – Juliet lies lifeless on her couch.
Mantua. It is night. Romeo is alone, lost in gloomy thoughts. He has had no news from Juliet. Friar Lawrence’s messenger has not arrived. Benvolio, who has just come from Verona, rushes to Romeo and tells him of Juliet’s death. Romeo hurries back to Verona.
At the cemetery in Verona, the mourners, sad and silent, take their last farewell of Juliet and depart. Romeo enters the vault. He cannot take his eyes off his beloved; she is dead, and life no longer has any meaning for him. Romeo swallows some poison and falls dead at her feet. Juliet wakes up to see Romeo dead. Snatching his dagger, she stabs herself.
The people assembled at the cemetery watch as Old Montague and Old Capulet gaze sorrowfully at the bodies of their dead children. In silence, they stretch out their hands to each other.
The tragic death of the two lovers was the price to pay to end their long and bloody feud.
The ballet Romeo and Juliet might never have been. In 1934 Prokofiev discussed the possibility of staging The Gambler and The Fiery Angel in Leningrad. At the time, Andrian Piotrovsky (the director of the Leningrad studios and a consultant for the GATOB) forwarded the idea of a new opera and, among other plots, he suggested Shakespeare’s tragedy. The idea for Romeo as a ballet finally took shape in May 1935.
The second “godfather” of this production was Sergei Radlov. A co-writer of the scene plan, he proposed radical re-workings of Shakespeare, the most fantastical of which involved a happy ending. In the summer of 1935 the score was completed. During this time the GATOB production fell through and the idea was taken up by the Bolshoi Theatre. A stormy time began for the lovers of Verona: the failure of the first public performance (4 October 1935), the reworking of the finale in line with Shakespeare, the performance of two symphony suites from the ballet (1936-1937 season), a new contract with the GATOB (then known as the Kirov Theatre) and only on 11 January 1938 did the premiere of Romeo take place.
Apropos, the premiere of Romeo took place in the Czech city of Brno – encyclopaedias list this as the world premiere. It is known that this was a one-act ballet which featured only selected excerpts (possibly the music of the two suites). It was in Leningrad that the score was heard in its entirety for the first time.
Here the production was entrusted to Leonid Lavrovsky. The choreographer made a meticulous study of Veronese archives, medieval novels and descriptions of early dances. For his principal expressive means he chose dramatically vivid pantomime dance. Swearing allegiance to the spirit of Shakespeare, Lavrovsky demanded the removal of all radical elements from the libretto in addition to expanding several parts and augmenting the orchestration. Prokofiev resisted the changes even after the premiere.
The production was designed by Pyotr Williams, one of the finest theatre designers of the age. Williams’ Italy arbitrarily combined heterogeneous elements of the Renaissance: on the squares of Verona there was the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore and in the costume sketches one could find traces of portraits by Botticelli and Cranach the Elder. Verona literally moved to the expanses of Leningrad: many columnists noted the restrained and not remotely southern flavour of the production.
The first cast was to be legendary – first and foremost the legendary Galina Ulanova. Ulanova’s arabesque as Juliet became a symbol of understatement in an era of silence and subtext, and when she ran across the stage it was a desperate flight for freedom.
Lavrovsky and Williams’ ballet is one of the finest creations in Soviet ballet and a rare case for Prokofiev’s works where the first version proved canonical. In 1946 the production was staged at the Bolshoi Theatre with Ulanova as Juliet. In 1956 it created a furore in London during a tour by the Moscow company and became a starting point for international 20th century versions – by Ashton, MacMillan, Nureyev and Neumeier. In 2012 it was released on DVD. To this day it has packed auditoriums, and it is hard to believe that the music of Romeo was once considered “anti-ballet” and that on the eve of the premiere they were expecting a failure. Bogdan Korolyok
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