Top positive review
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Same production, same venue, different casts and different interpretations to compare
on 8 December 2011
It seems appropriate to start this assessment by quoting three newspaper summaries as follows:
`Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta ... Absolutely gleam with greatness' (Daily Telegraph)
`Acosta ... dances with stunning power' (Financial Times)
`Rojo's portrait of Juliet is gorgeously, movingly, thrillingly shaped' (Sunday Times)
There are now two recent recordings available of this ballet, both made by the Royal Ballet. The newest disc, recorded in March 2012, comes into the most direct competition possible with this previous recording listed here. This earlier recording 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 the two recordings 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. Both are described in the course of this review as follows:
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 of 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 from 2012 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 the 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.