Review: Mariinsky Ballet in Romeo & Juliet at Royal Opera House

Performance: 3 - 6 August 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 5 August 2009

4 August

The Lavrovsky Romeo & Juliet is unquestionably a museum piece, but nonetheless one well worth preserving. Made in 1940 it is, of course, dated but complaining about the original designs and choreography is a little like watching ‘Brief Encounter’ on TV and saying the costumes are old-fashioned. It is what it is and comparisons with other better-known choreographies for Shakespeare’s doomed lovers are as pointless as the happy ending that the Soviets tried – unsuccessfully – to impose on Lavrovsky’s plot.

There is much to admire, not least that the characters are sharply drawn. No-one can doubt that Tybalt is a comic-book villain with his bouffant orange wig and multi-coloured tights. More adult themes lie in his erotic fondling of the sword’s blade and tip, prior to driving it through Mercutio, and in Lady Capulet’s sexual straddling of his corpse. Nothing can ever live up to the demonic performance of Alexei Yermolayev as Tybalt in the 1954 filmed interpretation of Lavrovsky’s work, but Dmitri Pykhachev was suitably and gleefully evil. Polina Rassadina was also notable as a roly-poly, lusty Nurse (not unlike a silent version of Queen Elizabeth’s “Nursey” in the unforgettable Blackadder II).

I have a hunch that Denis Matvienko likes London; either that or there’s a surprising shortage of strong male dancers in Russia. He has spent the past four summers here, appearing on tour with three different Russian companies: guesting with the Bolshoi in 2006 and 2007, leading St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky troupe last year, and now back at the Royal Opera House with the Mariinsky. Evidently, Denis is in demand. A strong, charismatic, virtuoso dancer, he’s at ease in the tough, macho role of Spartacus or the cheeky humour of Don Quixote’s Basilio, but Romeo provides the opportunity to display a greater range of dramatic ability; less explosive fireworks but simmering with slow burning passion. It was a finely nuanced performance.

His relationship with Evgenia Obraztsova’s Juliet took a while to get going. I was disappointed in the lack of obvious sparks in their balcony pas de deux, which suffers, I feel, from a lack of context and intimacy in a vast empty stage. However, the powerful innocence of their unbridled love begins to glow from the marriage scene (much lengthened in this version) and the urgency and impatience of the bedroom pas de deux was stunningly portrayed. One sensed two young people truly on the edge of a precipice.

Obraztsova is a REAL ballerina, trained into a flowing and disciplined respect for her art. There is never a sense of anything contorted or falsely flamboyant in movements that flow seamlessly into positions which articulate ballet as it is meant to be. How this sublime dancer is not a Principal of the Mariinsky is somewhat beyond my comprehension.

There is a lot of hokum (or “hokey”, as I just heard the great Anthony Hopkins say on the radio) about this Romeo & Juliet. But it’s a largely enjoyable cheesiness that detracts little from a narrative which explains Shakespeare’s plot more succinctly than most alternative librettos and takes nothing away from some of the most marvellously precise dancing seen in London, this year.

Even hours before this performance began, the Opera House website was still headlining the wrong cast and – even as I write – it is still giving the wrong cast for the next two performances, even though the changes have been known about for some time. I know many people who care enough about ballet to book for particular dancers and this service – for expensive tickets – simply isn’t good enough.

What’s On