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Views And Reviews: Romeo And Juliet

The inimitable Paul Serotsky introduces a concert audience to the ballet suite from Prokofiev’s great work Romeo and Juliet.

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Prokofiev (1891-1953) – Ballet Suite: Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev's early ballet scores (such as Le Pas d'Acier, and the abortive Ala and Lolli) were written under the influence of Diaghilev, in the heady atmosphere of the post-war 1920s. Demand was for increasingly sensational productions: lots of bright colour, little melody, and hence a predominance of rhythm. Fashion also demanded variety, so these ballets were relatively short.

Returning to the USSR in 1933, Prokofiev entered a very different climate – the doctrine of “socialist realism” was taking hold, and so-called “formalist” excess (adventurousness) was frowned on (i.e. likely to get you arrested). Luckily Prokofiev, otherwise forced to abandon his sinful ways, found in the burgeoning medium of film a degree of licence to continue developing his highly-coloured, brittle, abrasive style. But, as far as ballet was concerned, a radical rethink was necessary.

In Romeo and Juliet (1935), the element of “extended melody”, embryonic in The Prodigal Son and Sur le Borysthene, finally matured. Taking a tip from Wagner, of all people, Prokofiev made extensive use of “leitmotif”: expressing the dramatic developments of characters and relationships through symphonic developments of associated musical ideas, Prokofiev bound the necessarily short balletic numbers into a cohesive whole, mirrored Shakespeare's tale with astonishing conviction, and avoided “formalism”.

Within this “acceptable” framework, Prokofiev secreted niches where he could continue to “sin”: that aptitude for abrasiveness provided the spice to both release and heighten dramatic tension, and could be freely applied to the light-hearted revelry that counterbalances the looming tragedy of the plot. Even at 2½ hours long, the full score feels very compact because each moment (including passages accommodating scenery changes) contributes something to the evolution of characters or plot.

But we are not hearing the whole ballet! Prokofiev admitted that his suites “do not follow each other consecutively”, and that “some numbers were . . . compiled from diverse . . . material.” But we are not hearing Prokofiev's suites! So, in our conductor's* choice of plums, can any of these dramatic delights still be discerned? Indeed, they can. You'll get a particularly good impression of the way it works in numbers 4, 7 and 8, music from all three scenes featuring the lovers alone, and I've also referred each item to its dramatic context:

1. Introduction: These two volcanic crescendi, with their suspenseful responses, properly accompany the outraged Prince in Act I, forbidding further fooling with swords in public places. Their reappearance as the Act III Introduction, following the slaughter at the end of Act II, sounds like the Nibelung Curse at work.

Montagues and Capulets: This grandiose, ponderous basse-danse is a reduction of the Knights' Dance in the Act I Ball scene. Intended to establish the character of the Capulet family, thereafter its themes become linked with the black-tempered Tybalt (the “bad guy”), and later with Capulet himself (another fairly nasty piece of work). The quiet central episode accompanies Juliet reluctantly dancing with her arranged suitor.
2. Minuet: Preceding “Masques”, this brilliantly coloured, partly pompous, partly comic prelude to the Ball accompanies the guests arriving at the Capulets' home and removing their cloaks.

3. Masques: Before the Act I Ball scene, the masked Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio tease the guests as they enter the ballroom. So good-natured is their teasing, this episode confirms Romeo & Co. as the “good guys”, and the theme of the central episode becomes associated with the merry Mercutio.

4. Romeo and Juliet: This is the Act I “Balcony Scene”, replete with light breaking at yonder window, Romeo plighting his troth, Juliet responding positively, and Romeo reacting in typically youthful fashion by jumping all over the place, before they get to the business of sealing their bond. The music gathers their key themes in appropriately red-blooded refulgence.

5. Death of Tybalt: is a conflation of the disastrous ending of Act II. Romeo's anxiety, as Mercutio crosses swords with Tybalt, is expressed in the anguished overlaying of one of his themes. The swordfight music, accompaniment to mere youthful posturing in Act I, intensifies as tempers flare. Skipping past Mercutio's death, the pulsing beats that end the fight announce Romeo's rash revenge. Enter the bereft senior Capulets, self-indulgently weeping and wailing, as befits anyone who makes the Knights' Dance the centrepiece of their Ball.

6. Dance: A reduction of the Dance of the Five Couples from Act II Scene 1, this is one of those pieces of pure, unadulterated revelry. Even in the most trivial-seeming passages, Prokofiev kept up his high standard of inventiveness – just listen to the amazing “cross-faded” orchestration of the counter-subject!

7. Romeo and Juliet before Parting: Dawn breaks at the start of Act III, ending the clandestinely-married lovers' honeymoon. In Act III's more intimate setting, evoked by luminous chamber-music scoring, the lovers' themes mature into poignant reflection of the earlier Balcony Scene, with apprehension muting passion.

8. Juliet's Grave: What is practically the ballet's entire Epilogue uses another “Curse” motive, related to the cataleptic drug and Friar Lawrence's alarmingly high-risk strategy. This malignant motive racks the lovers' themes, screwing stark sorrow out of their formerly joyful lines. At the bitter end Juliet – unlike Romeo, but like the sun unto which Romeo likened her – does “go gentle into that good night”.

© Paul Serotsky 2001

* “Our conductor” on this occasion was the late, lamented Adrian Smith, whose steady hand guided the Slaithwaite Phil. For over 30 years.

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