On my way to the Metropolitan Opera House last night, I texted a friend, “I’m going to the Met to see ‘Romeo and Juliet’—and it ain’t Gounod.” I should not knock Gounod’s opera. It has Juliet’s Waltz (“Je veux vivre”), the love duet (“Nuit d’hyménée”), and one or two other things. And it has lasted for 150 years now. But Prokofiev’s ballet score? A masterpiece of masterpieces.
American Ballet Theatre gave us Romeo and Juliet last night.
You can fashion suites out of the score, sure, and people have. But honestly, it is one long highlights reel. There is hardly any “filler” in it. Practically every measure matters. Much of the music is light, whimsical, and funny, which I mention only because Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. But it is other things before the tragedy sets in. That, you might say, is why it is tragic.
The music is loved by many people who have never seen the ballet, but if the choreography and the dancing are right, the music is more potent than ever. ABT uses the choreography of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, from 1965. In my estimation, this R&J is a “just right” marriage of music and movement.
Last night, Gillian Murphy was Juliet. If she were a musician, I would say, “She had learned all the notes, so you never had to worry about that. Technique was in the bag. She was simply playing the music.” Murphy’s was an intelligent, perceptive Juliet. All the right moods were registered (and Juliet has many in the course of the ballet). You could hear the audience respond to Murphy and her character. I mean, you could literally hear them, as they sighed, chuckled, or gasped.
Cory Stearns was Romeo, charming as wooer, enjoyable as street swaggerer, and affecting as tragic figure. Dancing his sidekick Mercutio was Daniil Simkin, who was a picture of playful bravado. He threatened to steal all the scenes he was in.
And could I say, is there a more thankless role in all of ballet than that of Paris? The poor guy has done nothing wrong, really, and no one likes him, least of all Juliet.
Lady Capulet was portrayed by Stella Abrera, which I call luxury casting. She may not have done much dancing (of the prima-ballerina kind). But when she moved about the stage, I could hardly take my eyes off her.
About the orchestra, I will say little. They did their best. But, when it comes to ballet in New York, there is a mismatch between stage and pit. The two should be more equal, as they are in Vienna, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere. Music is an important component of ballet—maybe not the most, but not negligible either.
To my knowledge, the major orchestras in New York—the Philharmonic and the Met Opera orchestra—are never involved in ballet. That’s too bad.
Finally, a word, or further word, about Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, though I should not forget the playwright, Shakespeare. Speaking of him: Paul Johnson says that Hamlet is the greatest work of art. I guess I accept this (although I would hate to slight Bach’s B-minor Mass). But every time I leave R&J, I can’t help thinking that it, in fact, is the GWOA.