Romeo and Juliet, Ballet by S. Prokofiev
In creating the ballet Romeo and Juliet, Sergei Prokofiev faced many challenges: Soviet censorship, political infighting, frivolous plot edits, and performance delays. Against all odds, his version of the classic Shakespeare tragedy remains one of the most popular ballet works of all time – and it deserves its status fully! Romeo and Juliet’s power and glory will shine on the ballet stage of Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice this season.
While planning his musical return to the Soviet Union, his first homecoming after the Revolution of 1917, Prokofiev set his sights on several epic love stories. Ultimately, he decided to adapt William Shakespeare’s world-famous love tragedy Romeo and Juliet for the ballet stage. The Kirov Theatre in Leningrad (the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg today) commissioned the work in 1936, and writer Adrian Piotrovsky joined in to help adapt the source text.
Prokofiev got to work with zeal and produced an annotated piano score impressively fast. However, from that point on Romeo and Juliet went through a number of obstacles and reworkings. Initially Prokofiev and Piotrovsky allowed themselves considerable departures from the Shakespeare original and even opted for a happy ending. The decision greatly confused audiences; the Soviet censors were not amused, either.
Due to political infighting across the Soviet art scene, Prokofiev’s completed ballet started gathering dust in Leningrad, where the premiere was postponed repeatedly. Frustrated, the composer took the work to Brno, Czechoslovakia, where Romeo and Juliet debuted on 30 December 1938. The storyline changes notwithstanding, the ballet was a massive hit.
Before the ballet had its originally intended premiere at the Kirov Theatre in 1940, the censors had come down on Prokofiev hard. As a result, a version much closer to Shakespeare’s text was produced, and it remains the preferred performance material to this day. Throughout the many difficulties, however, the one constant thing about Romeo and Juliet was Prokofiev’s amazing music.
The score to Romeo and Juliet shines with emotionality and depth in the best traditions of the ballet genre. Show pieces such as ‘Dance of the Knights’ or the enamoured pair’s ‘Love Dance’ are definite highlights in an overall work where Prokofiev demonstrates his mastery of musical characterisation and evocative composition. Romeo and Juliet’s magic plays out at Venice’s Gran Teatro La Fenice once again.