It will probably come as no surprise that I don't spend much time at the ballet, which suffers from an overabundance of tulle, Tchiakovsky, and overall tweeness. But, if you visit New York City Ballet at the State Theater over the next couple of weeks, you'll have the opportunity to hear what, to my ears, is the greatest music ever written for a full-evening ballet: Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet. (Stravinsky's Rite remains top dog overall.)
This trimmed-down production, with choreography by NYCB director Peter Martins and design by Per Kirkeby, was a sold-out sensation when it premeiered last season, and I didn't see many empty seats in the house when I saw it yesterday afternoon. The dancing, led by principals Robert Fairchild and Sterling Hyltin (who looked not much older than the fourteen-year old of Shakespeare's script) was engaging and impressive, especially the athletic swordplay between the warring Capulets and Montagues.
But, I was there primarily for the music. Aside from the challenging, often thorny sounds Prokoviev unleashes on the audience, his most remarkable achievement is mirroring Shakespeare's compelling tragedy with music of dramatic, psychological intensity. To wit: The Knight's Dance, from the Capulet ball in Act I:
Those groaning, guttural sounds, accompanied onstage by a slow, synchronized dance by the full cast, reflect the formality that surrounds these two families and threatens to ensnare them both. The music reappears throughout the ballet as a sinister underpinning, not unlike a Wagner leitmotif.
To be sure, there is also plenty of lush, romantic scoring in Romeo & Juliet (after all, this is a love story). Here's the pas de deux from the Balcony Scene, where Romeo and Juliet declare their love for each other:
But, Prokoviev saves his most intense writing for Act III, when, after an escape plot gone terribly awry, both Romeo and Juliet kill themselves. The music is piercing and devastating at first, then dark and sad, then finally transcendent in the hope that the lovers will be joined once again in death. Only the most stonehearted person could refuse to be affected by music such as this:
Performances of Romeo & Juliet continue at the State Theater through Jan. 15. Tickets are still available for all performances at the box office or the City Ballet website.
(Musical excerpts: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Libor Pesek, Cond.)