This new disc, recorded in March 2012, comes into the most direct competition possible with the previous recording. That was made in November 2007 by Decca, also at the Royal Ballet with the same production but with a different cast and a Russian conductor. One might be forgiven for being rather confused at this stage as it seems that they will double up so closely as to be an unnecessary duplication. In reality they are very different performances with a completely different emotional effect almost throughout.
Individual timings of various sections are an indication of the different approaches to the interpretation. In the earlier version starring Acosta and Rojo with Boris Gruzin conducting tempi are noticeably faster with tauter movements in many sections (such as in the crowd scenes or the sword fights) than in the new version with Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson starring with Barry Wordsworth conducting. Some of the gentler sections can be startlingly different too such as Juliet's dance in act 1 taking just 2'20'' with Rojo compared to just over 3 minutes with Cuthbertson for instance. The ensemble pieces with their slower speeds in particular have completely different effects. The market scenes in the earlier version have an unmistakable sense of menace, the harlots' dance has an aggressive edge, the dance of the knights (Capulets) is clearly a demonstration of menacing power on the earlier version while the new version is more of a measured demonstration of stateliness.
This difference in interpretation between the two performances is apparent throughout and equally applies to the main characters, Romeo and Juliet. Acosta is all about strength and power and he is matched by Rojo's apparent fragility. This creates a dramatic tension which matches the palpable menace that permeates the whole of the earlier performance. The harlots are aggressive, the fight scenes are hair-raising in their intense determination to inflict death. Interestingly, Christopher Saunders appearing in both versions, is more aggressive as Lord Capulet towards Juliet in the bedroom scenes in act 3 than he is in the same role in the new version. Thiago Soares as Tybalt is extraordinarily cold-bloodied and vicious in the earlier production and his actual physical appearance and general demeanour is in a completely different league compared to the more socially acceptable and simply unpleasant characterisation of Bennet Gartside in this new version. Everything about the earlier version is on a more epic scale. This also applies to Rojo's apparent fragility as a naive and very young girl and her ultimate final strength as she takes the sleeping draught and then finally stabs herself and dies. She is visibly moved and struggles to hold back the tears at the following curtain calls and Acosta has to comfort her. It takes her a while to compose herself.
In the new production there is a gentler and more lyrical approach to the whole ballet. This is not just a question of generally slower speeds. The emphasis is on smoother phrasing within the orchestra and a greater emphasis on the sweeping string textures rather than edgy brass which are kept more tonally blended. In the earlier version the phrasing is more aggressive with harsher accenting and with the brass far more prominent and biting in their tonal projection. On stage, the ensemble market scenes are more good humoured here with the harlots less aggressively dominant towards Romeo and his friends and the responses from the other girls less angry or defensive of their propriety. Mercutio's taunting, fight and ultimate death at the hands of Tybalt is more about taunting gone wrong rather than built-in hatred. Lady Capulet shows plenty of grief here but the earlier version is more literally hand-wringing because of the greater level of previous violence and its consequence. Both Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson give excellent portrayals of their respective roles but this is very much girl meets boy next door. He is clearly a gentle soul with not an ounce of aggression in him. She is a bonny and healthy young English girl/woman with the added experience of being more than a teenager, more socially aware, less of a naive victim figure and not at all fragile. Both he and she are all smiles and immediately happy at the final curtain calls and there is clearly no need for comfort!
The new booklet has a telling comment from a member of the Technical Department which sums it all up and I quote: 'The Russian conductors go at it like mad things. It does sound better, but you feel "Slow down a bit"-because there's a hell of a lot to do.'
In the Acosta and Rojo earlier version, everything is on an epic scale both emotionally and physically. This applies to absolutely everything from the two stars, the supporting characters, the ensembles and corps de ballet and, possibly most importantly, from the driven and very Russian view of the conductor, Boris Gruzin. This is a drama of inevitable high tragedy which could never have gone right given the total lack of understanding at every level.
In this newer version with Bonelli and Cuthbertson everything is on a more normal girl meets boy next door scale both emotionally and physically. This equally applies to the supporting characters, the ensembles and corps de ballet and, probably crucially, from the more lyrical and less dramatic view of the conductor, Barry Wordsworth. This is a potentially happy story of the love between two young people which goes tragically wrong but could perhaps have been avoided given more understanding and social counselling, and I don't mean to be trite. This is very much a tale related to our own times where hope for a happy ending is never quite banished until the final act. One is left with the feeling of 'If only but ....'
Both discs are well recorded with sharp HD definition in both imaging and DTS-Master Audio sound. The camera work in both cases is excellent and fully supports the action on stage. The new disc supplies two short documentaries about the fight scenes (4 minutes) and about Kenneth MacMillan (8 minutes). There is also the usual Opus Arte cast gallery. The Decca disc does not have any extras.
This then is a choice between two quite different versions which are not as similar as one might expect. Both are equally well danced, recorded and played. The dramatic intent is the difference and this pervades both performances completely.
Supporters of the main stars will surely choose the version that they relate to on that basis. So will those who attended the performances either on stage or on screen. The audiences at the conclusion of both discs were equally ecstatic.
I would suggest that potential purchasers who do not relate directly to either cast would be best advised to consider which type of story they favour - a drama of hatred and aggression overcoming all or girl meets boy with a not quite inevitable tragic ending. Both of these options are equally well done on these two discs but they are not the same by any means.
In conclusion. these are two equally good discs but a reviewer can only give clues as to the differences between them. I would not presume to go further with advice as this will so obviously be a matter of personal responses to the individual dancers and to the type of story preferred. Everything else is equally matched.
Some dialogue from the comments section that may offer further help:
Thank you for your wonderfully in-depth review! You've convinced me to buy the blu-ray. (U.S. review)
A most wonderful review. Many thanks.
Wish you had also commented on the two different Paris. Vale Rihristov's portray made Paris matter far more and the story much sadder.
I'm forwarding your review to a young ballet student. (U.S.review)
An absolutely superb review that is a model for how to address an opera or ballet. Thank you for the insights and also for the example of how to write a comprehensive comparative review. By the way, this is also one of the most beautiful ballets ever written. (Many years ago I was in London and saw Romeo and Juliet; the Juliet -- I sadly forget her name -- was ill and a young substitute was introduced. She was Natalia Makarova. What an experience!) Based on your review I will now buy both versions. (U.S. review)
Very interesting - I do think that Barry Wordsworth is a very good conductor and I have admired his work in purely orchestral repertoire. Given that my own primary interest is the music, I am glad that I got this version; as I have the feeling that his is the approach I prefer (U.K. review)
Yes your review is very comprehensive - it made me want to have a look at some of your other reviews, which I did and found them to be very helpful! (U.K. review)
An EXCELLENT Review, Ian!
We are lucky to have two such brilliant but different versions available, and I'm not sure I will ever be able to pick a favourite!
The 2012 Barry Wordsworth version has one BIG advantage, which is much more pleasant and natural sounding Brass and Strings, but I do miss Boris Grusin's "Full Speed Ahead!" approach to the Swordfight Scenes!! (U.K. review)
Bravo, I. Giles,
I had a feeling of watching a completely different Romeo & Juliet when I got the arte opus disc. You nailed it perfectly! Why chose between the two if you can have both? (U.K. review)
I find that a lot of people who disagree with a review mark it as "unhelpful," which is, I think, a misnomer and unfair. Amazon should have two separate buttons: "agree/disagree" for those who have seen/read/used the item and agree or disagree with a reviewer's opinion and "helpful/unhelpful" for those who are potential buyers. For the latter, your review could not be anything but helpful. (U.S. review)
A note to the anonymous negative voters:
The voting system is specifically only about reviews being 'helpful' or 'unhelpful'
Goodness only knows what you find to be `unhelpful' about this review.
A negative vote without reason is not helpful to anyone. It does not contribute in any useful way to discussion so no-one can learn from you.
If you have a different view or find the review 'unhelpful' then explain, giving your reasons, and share your views in the comment option as intended.
Your opinion might then add to the total useful advice.