Fierce love in Verona

  • 2014-11-05
  • By Richard Martyn-Hemphill

RIGA - Fierce and skilful swordsmanship is not often a trait that gets associated with ballet dancers, but the spirited production of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet now on at the Latvian National Opera House descends almost from the outset into an intense sword fight between the Montagues and the Capulets —Shakespeare’s most tirelessly squabble-prone pair of families.

Any sword fight on stage risks looking preposterous and unconvincing, especially in the midst of ballet performances; but the clashing and swinging of glinting swords makes for a dazzling and convincing opening. Almost exactly two years on from its premier at the Slovene National Theatre, this production fuses classical ballet techniques with a more contemporary approach: graceful dance scenes intertwine with moments where the ballet dancers seem to pretty much move around like normal people.

This hybrid approach certainly has some advantages. Most notably it allows the dancers to free themselves from the constraints of classical techniques in moments of grief, which injects an admirable depth and sincerity into scenes like the death of Mercutio (Andris Pudans) — Romeo’s roguish brother-in-arms.
But hybridity can also create uncertainty: there is a slight feeling of incongruousness throughout most of the crowd scenes, with a rather disappointing lack of clarity about who should be dancing when; the confusion of crowd movements allow for distractions, making the plot surprisingly difficult to follow.
In contrast, the set design was assuredly uncluttered and simple: all scenes take place amid giant Tuscan columns, which move back and forth to denote a change of scene — an innovative minimalist technique from set designer Marko Japels.

The individual performances on the whole are strong. Evelina Godunova’s Juliet exudes a youthful elegance, fluttering with apparent weightlessness across the stage; while Artus Sokolov’s Romeo shows impressive conviction in his love, grief and anger. Meanwhile in the orchestra pit conductor and musical director Martins Ozolins captures the tempo of Prokofiev’s libretto well, drawing out an emotional anxiety that Prokofiev must have been feeling when the work was first staged in 1938, the height of Stalin’s purges. When Romeo declares in Act three that ”I must be gone and live, or stay and die,” it is easy to imagine Prokofiev having similar thoughts several years on from his idealistic decision to return to the Soviet Union. Like Romeo, Prokofiev chose to stay, and remained even while librettists, directors and choreographers he knew were forced off to labor camps or executed.

But Prokofiev’s musical world of Shakespeare’s Verona is an attempt to escape from all that. Perhaps this is why Prokofiev initially planned a happy ending. This production is rooted admirably in this ideal, keeping to the distant world of Renaissance Verona, with a rich variety of Veronese costumes to boot; though the production is also in keeping with Shakespeare’s original plot, a narrative that has stood the test of time to say the least.
Sticking to the belief that the Renaissance is, as Croatian choreographer and director Valentina Turku says, “the ideal time and space for a visual and musical concept beyond convention,” this production has put on a show that is a noble attempt at capturing the essence of love, hate and grief through movement and music; an enlivening retreat from the winter chill.

Latvian National Opera House in Riga
Nov. 19 and Dec. 17.
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