Monday, November 7, 2011

Boston Ballet's Romeo and Juliet

Misa Kuranaga and Pavel Gurevitch in Romeo and Juliet.  Photo(s): Rosalie O'Connor

We're awash in "translated" Shakespeare right now - we've seen at least five operas and ballets based on the Bard in the past few months, and there are more on the way. Few will surpass the John Cranko/Sergei Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, however, which runs through this weekend at the Opera House in a rich and rewarding production from Boston Ballet.  Prokofiev's score is itself a wonder; it's one of the few story-ballet scores that are of serious musical interest - which is all the more striking because it's not just a series of divertissements, but is crammed with narrative and emotional detail.  And Cranko's choreography is justly celebrated for matching it toe-to-toe, if you will, in the plot department, while also brilliantly evoking its doomy mood; this is a Romeo and Juliet in which the mutual hatred of the Capulets and the Montagues operates as implacable curse (their final reconciliation is cut), and the deaths of the principals seem inevitable from the start.  Indeed, together Cranko and Prokofiev lift the story ballet to the level of tragedy; and fans of the Bard (as well as ballet) will want to catch the production because it offers a rare chance to see onstage what postmodern theatre productions of R&J usually cheat us of - rousing, convincing fights and dances, and a passionate vision of the physical grace of youth.

Which is what keeps this version, despite its grim undertow, always full of life (and love).  And Boston Ballet knows just how to do it up right (we've seen this production before, and just a few years ago - but I was happy to drink it all in again).  Susan Benson's opulent costumes and set (dominated by a looming central arch) tint the Renaissance with a shadow of the Middle Ages, and the painterly glow of Christopher Dennis's lighting seems to capture several different times of day and night.  Meanwhile, down in the pit, Jonathan McPhee delivered a generally gripping accompaniment (particularly strong where the building, dissonant chords which finally collapse in a deathly crash), although there were a few scrapes from both the strings and the horns at the top of their respective ranges.

Still, the Ballet Orchestra seemed to always be propelling the action, and indeed, the flow of the big crowd scenes are where Cranko's nearly cinematic choreographic sense is most in evidence. In this Verona, the corps is shaped and massed into a constantly engaging vision of a village on the move, and details "pop" in the background just when they should (when Tybalt is cut down, for instance, we immediately notice a horrified servant dashing off to tell the Capulets).  Interestingly, Cranko keeps the communal dances within a fairly circumscribed set of steps - it's when Romeo and Juliet are alone that he strikes out in creative ways to convey both the elation and the danger of their situation.  (The lovers leap into a series of strikingly original lifts in their first pas de deux - they're head over heels, after all - but as the walls of Verona close in around them, they also begin to drag each other down, literally.)

Luckily for us, the Ballet now has a deep enough bench of talent to convey both aspects of Cranko's vision.  On opening night, Nelson Madrigal took the role of Romeo - a part that with his ripe good looks he was born to play, and which by now he knows inside and out.  He still has a little trouble with his big double tours, but everything else is there, and emotionally the performance is beautifully transparent; he dashes about with a palpable romantic glow.  The big question in my mind about the production, frankly, was how Misa Kuranaga - always a technical marvel - would fare in the demanding dramatic role of Juliet.  And the answer is that she sails through it, convincingly conveying a specific personality through her impeccable technique.  By the finale, she has broken your heart. (I know that's a cliché, but sometimes clichés, like dreams, come true.)

Paulo Arrais as Mercutio.
There were more great performances around this central pair, however - in fact the evening was brimming with memorable turns.  Yury Yanowsky was once again an icily commanding Tybalt, who held the stage with a frighteningly bitter charisma.  Meanwhile Sabi Varga offered a surprisingly sympathetic turn as Paris, while Tai Jimenez stared down the crowd as an imposing Lady Capulet, and Boyko Dossev made a small miracle of the brief role of Friar Lawrence.  In the background of the crowd scenes, I also couldn't help but notice a convincing cameo from Paul Craig as a doomed Capulet, while Adiarys Almeida glittered later as a lightly sensual gypsy. (We already knew Almeida, like Kuranaga, could dance; now we know she can act, too).

But probably the big news of the night was Paulo Arrais's galvanic turn as Mercutio; this young dancer stole scene after scene from Madrigal - just as Mercutio should. But the surprise was not merely the happy wit and sexual fire Arrais brought to his early dances, but the poignant depth of his extended death scene.  I confess I always watch the Ballet's productions like a hawk for a sense of the ongoing development of its upcoming dancers. And the news from Romeo and Juliet is that Misa Kuranaga is now the Ballet's newest leading lady, and Paulo Arrais its freshest star.


  1. I stumbled on the Hub Review quite by chance, reading the Boston Ballet email sending links to various reviews of Romeo and Juliet. Yours was clearly the best, and the only one to mention the Prokofieff score and the BB orchestra. Any ballet reviewer who doesn’t take note of the music in a ballet such as this is clearly not a true balletomane.

  2. Thanks for your comment, and compliment. I couldn't agree more that consideration of its accompaniment is an integral part of critiquing dance.