United Kingdom Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet: Dancers and Orchestra of the English National Ballet / Gavin Sutherland(conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 12.6.2013. (JPr)
Juliet: Alina Cojocaru
Romeo: Friedemann Vogel
Mercutio: Yonah Acosta
Benvolio: James Forbat
Tybalt: Max Westwell
Lord Capulet: James Streeter
Lady Capulet: Jane Haworth
Nurse: Tamarin Stott
Rosaline: Begoña Cao
Friar Lawrence: Luke Heydon
Prince of Verona: Michael Coleman
Harlots: Laurretta Summerscales, Nancy Osbaldeston, Ksenia Ovsyanick & Adela Ramirez
Derek Deane’s version of Romeo and Juliet was devised for the Royal Albert Hall in 1998 and a young(er) Tamara Rojo was his muse for the teenage heroine. She has been back for this current ‘in the round’ revival that as (no relation) Jane Pritchard’s programme note reminds us ‘breaks away from the traditional proscenium arch settings to fill the whole of the arena with the world of Verona.’ It is also a tame Disneyfied version where there is sword fighting but few seem to get hurt, the ‘Harlots’ lift their skirts only briefly and are more like gypsies from Carmen and there is little genuine feel of the real splendour – or the death and decay – of a ‘real’ renaissance Italian city. To put it more bluntly … it is not Nureyev’s wonderful 1977 Romeo and Juliet – the staging that I returned to time and again in my formative ballet years. This is still, I believe, in English National Ballet’s repertory and would be a stunning showcase for their current wonderful roster of dancers.
The previous evening the cast was led by Rojo herself, now of course ENB’s dynamic artistic director, and superstar dancer Carlos Acosta. I suspect that would have been an entirely different evening from what I saw. However, I will for ever be grateful for seeing Alina Cojocaru and Friedemann Vogel because once most of the extra dancers – who spend most of their time going up the stairs through the audience only to come back down them minutes later – had been allowed to go home before Act III, Juliet and Romeo are left alone and the evening reached an emotional high that I rarely experienced in this opera before. I think I might know by now how the story of these two young lovers ends but my normal cool composure was compromised and my eyes moistened more than just a little! Put simply I doubt I have seen a more believable Juliet than Alina Cojocaru and while Freidemann Vogel – who has danced in this version twice before – may never eclipse my memories of Nureyev (who could?) his portrayal was equally totally convincing. Theirs was a stunning partnership and let us hope this is the first of many times we see them dancing together for ENB even though currently Vogel is a member of Stuttgart Ballet.
Derek Deane focusses everything on Juliet and none of the other characters has as much depth … including Romeo himself. I suspect Rojo’s Juliet would be feistier and more self-confident about what puberty brings her than Cojocaru’s lovelorn teenager who is unable to control her raging hormones. Her Juliet is in psychological turmoil about disobeying her parents’ wish for her to marry Paris because she has found true love herself with an interloper from the other side of the tracks … well, a rival Veronese family.
As Cojocaru explains herself in the programme ‘Juliet is that special role that has everything in it, from the freedom of the child to the introduction into society, the desire to obey and please the family, the betrayal of the loved and trusted nanny. The hope, fear, and despair and reason for life itself. Love and the passion love brings, the loss of a loved person and the death that will reunite – all these emotions are truly overwhelming to perform.’ Cojocaru’s incredible acting skills must have been evident to anyone even if they were in the furthest reaches of the Royal Albert Hall: with fewer steps her Juliet would match the greatest the Royal Shakespeare Company has seen. Every facial gesture and arm movement serves the drama and she reveals a fragile wounded innocence at her plight once she is over the initial ecstasy of her sexual awakening. Best of all was when she seemed, with arms wide open, to appeal to the audience for an answer to her ‘should-she-shouldn’t-she’ dilemma over whether to drink the sleeping potion Friar Lawrence gives her. Although her world-class romantic and ethereal technique is not overly challenged by Derek Deane’s choreography, Alina Cojocaru showed us a living breathing teenager having her tantrums over not getting her way – which is recognisable to all – and was the almost perfect synthesis of exceptional artistry and full-blooded humanity. Because of Friedemann Vogel’s assured, effortless and equally believable Romeo they were a touching central couple that made the intimate moments when they were more alone – their first meeting, the balcony and bedroom scenes and the denouement in the crypt – the highlights of this Romeo and Juliet.
As hinted at earlier, much as I like to see so many dancers employed in the corps de ballet half of them would have been more than enough for the market or masked ball scenes. There is little scenery to get in the way of those sitting lower down – there is of course a balcony, a bed and a catafalque and the chapel is a stained glass window projection – it is all these ‘extras’ who will block their view. Early on the soldiers of the Prince of Verona stomped down the stairs next to me in order to restore peace between the warring Montagues and Capulets and in their shiny armour they reminded me of the entry of the Cybermen at a BBC Dr Who Prom at this same venue! At times the leading characters got lost in all the melee and there also seemed more stumbling and tripping over things than might have been deliberate and it is appears difficult to keep such large forces dancing in the unison that this ambition requires.
English National Ballet has a great depth of talent these days and everyone was on form regardless of how little they had to do. Yonah Acosta was his usual whirlwind self as Mercutio, strumming his mandolin, sword-fighting and leaping energetically. The triumvirate of Montague ‘lads’ was completed by James Forbat’s expansively danced Benvolio and Max Westwell sneered menacingly and was a commanding Tybalt. No one else had much to actually dance apart from the ‘tarts with a heart’ quartet of ENB’s most promising ballerinas (Laurretta Summerscales, Nancy Osbaldeston, Ksenia Ovsyanick and Adela Ramirez) the long curly black wigs and bright red lipstick certainly suited some more than others but they seemed to be having fun. For the rest, if they were not just standing about gesticulating or moving things around, market carts especially, they were doing lots of emoting none more so than Jane Haworth’s Lady Capulet who brought something of (Dame) Angelina Jolie’s evil queen Maleficent (from the film of the same name) to her performance.
English National Ballet’s Orchestra, with the always reliable Gavin Sutherland conducting, gave a bright sounding performance of Prokofiev’s score that indulged in its more impassioned moments.
There are various casts during the remaining performances in this season that ends on 22 June with Daria Klimentová’s last performance before she retires and if you have not experienced the undoubted spectacle of ballet ‘in-the-round’ before, do go to this mostly rather tame and too busy Romeo and Juliet – but one that when it has two talented dancers such as Cojocaru and Vogel in the leading roles can still pack a devastating emotional punch at the end.
For details of all English National Ballet’s forthcoming performances visit www.ballet.org.uk.