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

Performance: in rep until 16 Mar 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 14 January 2010

Reviewed: January 2010

The Opera House’s affair with the world’s greatest love story began one autumn night in 1956 when the Bolshoi Ballet opened its first season in London with Lavrovsky’s famous interpretation of Romeo & Juliet, led by a 46 year-old ballerina (Galina Ulanova). Her performance was acknowledged by a ten-minute ovation and, according to a contemporary account, ‘curtain call after curtain call’. Following an unsuccessful attempt to gain the rights to perform the Lavrovsky choreography themselves, the Royal Ballet commissioned Kenneth MacMillan to make his own neoclassical interpretation, which was premiered in 1965 and led by a 45 year-old ballerina (Margot Fonteyn). With her partner, Rudolf Nureyev, she received 43 curtain calls in an ovation lasting 40 minutes.

Last night, Tamara Rojo (a comparative ingénue at just 35) received just a couple of curtain calls but here was a Juliet of such radiance and naturalness as to rival the very best to have been seen on this stage. She doesn’t act; she doesn’t dance; she doesn’t mime; she simply is Juliet, in every guise and emotion, articulating Shakespeare’s poetry without the need of speech, although guided and abetted by Prokofiev’s magnificent, sweeping score. Her artistry carries to every corner of this vast Opera House, each expression easily conveying the joy, the dilemma, the deceit, the ecstasy and the suffering of her brief journey from childhood through fulfilment and onto death.

Normally, Rojo dances opposite the great Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, but his indisposition through injury meant a late call-up for the young British Principal Rupert Pennefather. This unintended pairing proved to be a good one, since Pennefather is a natural Romeo in look, physique and an easy mastery of MacMillan’s movement, although he needs to tone down an occasional tendency to be too obviously acting a part to extend these natural gifts into the dramatic context. He delivered the big dancing moments well and partnered Rojo effectively such that the three main pas de deux for the doomed lovers (balcony, bedroom and crypt) did not disappoint in their romantic and tragic fluency, radiating a breathtaking passion from first to last.

There were some first-night nerves, none more so than in the obvious spacing problems in a normally tightly co-ordinated trio for Romeo, Mercutio (José Martin) and Benvolio (Sergei Polunin) outside the Capulets’ Castle and in a much below par Mandolin Dance. However, there were superb performances in the supporting cast especially the incomparable Gary Avis as Tybalt (a masterclass in expressive characterisation); Christopher Saunders and Elizabeth McGorian as the Capulets; with Laura Morera, Francesca Filpi and Samantha Raine adding fun and spice as Verona’s finest harlots.

The fight sequences generally worked better than I’ve seen for some time, with vigorous fencing seamlessly melding into the choreography without the obvious stage-fighting reserve that often comes with the territory of a very full ensemble. Those actors and students cast as the townsfolk of Verona enhance this excitement by becoming a tightly co-ordinated rippling mass organism flowing alongside the fights between Tybalt and Mercutio/Romeo. The effective organisation of so many people on one stage, contrasting as it does with the intimacy of the two lovers alone, is one of the great features of MacMillan’s masterpiece and the Royal Ballet’s coaching never fails to deliver the full impact of these big crowd scenes.

Romeo and Juliet continues at the Royal Opera House until mid-March when it is due to reach its 435th performance, a statistic, which proves that it is now firmly imprinted in the Royal Ballet’s DNA. If you can see just one production that defines the company, then this should be it, and for a Juliet of the most poetic and distinctive eloquence, one to melt even the hardest of hearts, then it must be Tamara Rojo.

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