Last Updated on January 11, 2022
Núñez shines as Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan’s iconic ballet
Even if Steven Spielberg’s recent take on the Romeo and Juliet story in his film version of West Side Story hasn’t set the cinema tills ringing, it’s wonderful to return to the Royal Opera House to see Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet performed by The Royal Ballet to a full house. With the Omicron variant still ripping through London each West End performance feels like a victory for audience, cast and crew alike. Macmillan’s take on the perennial tale of doomed love had its premiere in 1965 and has become a modern ballet classic. The choreography is more expressively than technically demanding providing the lead dancers with a wealth of opportunity for personal interpretation.
Tonight’s performance featured veteran Argentinian dancer Marianela Núñez as Juliet, paired with Italian Federico Bonelli as Romeo; both dancers are Principals of The Royal Ballet, deputising for the indisposed Natalia Osipova and Reece Clarke. The genesis of this production lay in a 1964 Canadian TV special for which Kenneth MacMillan had choreographed the famous balcony scene for dancers Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable. MacMillan was then commissioned by the Royal Ballet to complete the full ballet and given only five months to complete it for an upcoming American tour. Although the ballet was written for Seymour and Gable, the opening night was danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, a controversial decision made for commercial reasons.
From the moment that Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra cued up the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House for the overture, it was clear we were in for a treat. She pulled the emotion out of the band stretching the tempo to milk each heartrending dissonance of Prokofiev’s sonorous score. In Act 1 we meet Federico Bonelli’s Romeo, a young man who is boyishly in love with the idea of love. Set against the backdrop of Renaissance Verona we are brought into the rust and deep reds of a bustling Tuscan market, a kinetic tableau vivant replete with punk-haired harlots, traders and aristocrats all rubbing along together. Romeo is trying to woo Rosaline played with an aloofness worth of her name by Gina Storm-Jensen; but regional rivalries break open and the bucolic scene all too quickly bursts into sword fighting leading to tragedy for the warring Montagues and the Capulets. Bonelli as Romeo is technically very secure and imbues the part with a playful charm but without the emotional depth that the role can hold.
Of Romeo’s two compadres it is Marcelino Sambé’s Mercutio who you wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley whilst Benvolio, played by Téo Dubreuil, is more fop than fighter. But the real hard man is Ryoichi Hirano’s Tybalt. He is the Capulet’s prime enforcer and Hirano brings a wonderfully brutish, bullying sense of aggression to the part.
We first encounter Marianela Núñez as Juliet as she is being introduced to her suitor Paris. Tomas Mock as Paris brought an air of wounded pride to the role whereas Ms Núñez was all early adolescent playful skittishness, seemingly suspended in the air in her coupé jeté. Her pointe technique is exquisite and there was a delightful comic moment as she acknowledged the growth of her newly forming breasts. The masked ball is the pivotal scene in the first act as the young lovers set eyes on each other for the first time with an immediate and powerful sense of connection between the two protagonists. This carried over into the balcony scene as Núñez pirouetted into Bonelli’s arms as he gradually lifted her higher and higher with the strings driving the ecstasy of the romance. Núñez, who is no spring chicken, was a wonder as she totally inhabited the physicality of an adolescent girl. In the Pas de Deux, she arched her back with a breathtaking vulnerability and elegance as she melded into her lover’s torso.
This production was a cornucopia of choreographic and dramatic delights with plenty of highlights. The large company is used to full effect in the ball and market scenes and special mention should be made of the harlots (Hannah Grennell, Olivia Cowley, Meaghan Grace Hinkis) with their licentious swagger and the commedia dell’arte inspired mandolin dancers (Joonhyuk Jun, Leo Dixon, Joshua Junker, Harrison Lee, Giacomo Rovero and Joseph Sissens) who leapt and capered with athletic grace.
In the dramatic roles, house favourite Gary Avis as Lord Capulet was in turns noble and restrained but then bullying towards Juliet, with Kristen McNally as the Nurse being protective and loving. We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s ‘star-crossed’ lovers caught up in a deadly family feud. They arrange to marry in secret but the tragedy plays out resulting in Romeo killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt as well as Paris. Juliet tries to feign death by drinking a potion, with the intention of being able to escape the city and find her lover. But, her plan misfires.
With evocative designs by Nicholas Georgiadis inspired by Italian Quattrocento paintings and architecture as well as Zeffirelli’s 1960 production of the play at the Old Vic, the monumental sets emphasise the vulnerability of Juliet and the helplessness of the couple against the society they lived in. The costumes and chiaroscuro lighting effects frame the narrative particularly effectively and Prokofiev’s rich and stirring score is one of ballet’s greats, the choreography in conversation with its intricate rhythms as well as sweeping drama. It’s remarkable to watch, with a series of fast set changes creating an almost cinematic effect.
The performance lasts approximately 2 hours 55 minutes, with two intervals.
Wednesday 12th January- Friday 25th February
Cinema relay 14 February
Romeo and Juliet
Royal Opera House,
London, WC2E 9DD
Looking for something different? Check our preview of the 2022 Season by The Royal Ballet