Romeo and Juliet, Ballet by S. Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev planned his return to the Soviet Union after nearly 20 years abroad to be nothing short of epic. In 1936 he took a commission for a ballet from Leningrad’s Kirov Theatre (nowadays the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg) and picked the world’s greatest love story, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The creative process proved difficult, but the final result was as magnificent as planned, something the guests of Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice will also ascertain.
Prokofiev teamed up with dramaturg Adrian Piotrovsky to adapt William Shakespeare’s source text. Curiously, the two decided to take considerable creative liberties, most famously giving the Romeo and Juliet ballet a happy ending, which left audiences at the first performances perplexed. Nevertheless, Prokofiev worked with much enthusiasm and produced his now-classic score in record time.
Unfortunately for the former expat composer, 1936–7 proved to be volatile in Soviet political and art circles and prevented Romeo and Juliet from going forward at the Kirov Theatre. Instead, the ballet had its premiere on 30 December 1938 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Despite its alternative plot, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was an instant success, thanks largely to its captivating musical score.
Disregarding the favourable audience reaction, Soviet censorship was relentless with the composer’s first stage work on home soil. When the premiere at the Kirov Theatre finally came in 1940, Prokofiev had been forced to revert back to Shakespeare’s original storyline and to make dramatic as well as musical changes to the whole ballet. Nevertheless, Romeo and Juliet maintained its irresistible charm through all the edits, and it remains one of the most beloved ballets in the world today.
Throughout his supremely evocative score, Prokofiev sprinkled numerous memorable themes that span the emotional spectrum. One of the most recognisable tunes, ‘Dance of the Knights’, gives musical embodiment to the malice and animosity of the two warring families. The ‘Love Dance’ of Romeo and Juliet captures the innocence and heavenly lightness of the two youths’ mutual feelings. ‘Juliet’s Funeral’ plunges in the deep end of sorrow and drives the tragedy towards its ultimate end.
In spite of the many obstacles, Prokofiev carried out his plan for an outstanding Soviet debut. The ballet Romeo and Juliet is an artistic triumph, on display at Gran Teatro La Fenice this season!