“And Romeo and Juliet lived happily ever after.” Efforts to uncross the stars of these star-crossed lovers began in Shakespeare’s day. His great Spanish contemporary Lope de Vega, using much the same sources, wrote “The Capulets and Montagues,” a tragicomedy (with plenty of comedy) in which Romeo and Juliet escape together from the tomb and reconcile with her family in due course.
Now, at Bard Summerscape, comes the world premiere of Prokofiev’s original 1936 account of the ballet “Romeo and Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare,” in which, unlike the later versions, both lovers are saved from death and given a dance-dance-dance apotheosis. Prof. Simon Morrison of Princeton, who found this score in Russian archives, has restored it, with the orchestration of four passages realized by Gregory Spears from Prokofiev’s manuscript annotations. We don’t just hear the score; we also see Mark Morris’s new choreographic version of it.
Don’t get excited. The 20 extra minutes of this “Romeo” boil down to some 8 minutes of entirely new but eminently cuttable music for supporting characters and about 12 minutes of nonradical variations on familiar “Romeo” material. Elsewhere the main differences have to do with cuts, reorderings and orchestral rearrangements.
These show us the satiric, sarcastic face Prokofiev so often wore. Whereas Shakespeare understands even his most brutal or silly characters from within, Prokofiev wants several of them to remain two-dimensional buffoons (the Nurse) or creeps (Tybalt). And so this “Romeo” becomes more like his “Cinderella”: young love wins magically, redeeming the unspoiled hero and heroine from the composer’s cynical view of the harsh realities of the world around them. But if you feel (as I do) that Prokofiev seriously misinterprets Shakespeare’s characters — the prime characteristic of the play’s hero and heroine is their highly educated cleverness, their love of poetic intricacy and paradox, never apparent here — this version won’t change your view.
Leon Botstein conducts the American Symphony Orchestra with precision and wit. The music sounds marvelously clear in the handsome acoustics of Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately it’s most enjoyable whenever Mr. Morris lowers a front curtain during scene changes.
Nothing in this staging persuades me that either Shakespeare’s play or Prokofiev’s music is the least bit dear to Mr. Morris’s heart. And there is not one moment when his choreography makes you hear (or like) the music better. High-flown sexual romance is just not in his nervous system; nor is tragic melodrama.
And by giving us — surprise! — a happy ending, Mr. Morris clinches how uninterested he is in telling any kind of story. The Capulets leave Juliet’s apparently dead body in her bed (why?). Romeo comes back (why?), assumes she’s dead and attempts suicide by holding a sword flamboyantly high above his head. Friar Laurence, arriving at the back of the stage, stops him and prays. (Mr. Morris’s grasp of mime is so poor that this Romeo can apparently “hear” a silent gesture behind his back.) Romeo waits; Juliet wakes, slowly and without enthusiasm. Suddenly, however, it’s all like that season of “Dallas” that began by showing us that the previous year’s episodes had all been a bad dream.
Juliet runs away with Romeo, Friar Laurence summons all of Verona to her bedroom to explain “Hallulujah! They’ve eloped!,” everyone rejoices on cue, and the curtain falls with Lord Capulet’s lips clamped on Lord Montague’s center stage. It rises again to show us the lovers in a star chamber. Long live love. And forget the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt.
Although this isn’t the worst dance “Romeo,” it may be the least sincere. Neither the characters nor their society seem organic. Since it is by Mr. Morris, it is, of course, laden with unvarying gestural motifs, several of which may be his clunkiest to date. It’s irritating when Mr. Morris repeats himself just because the music does, and it’s worse when he repeats himself and the music doesn’t.
The most attractive (though unoriginal) motif is a slow, low arabesque. But when Romeo does it five times without musical cue on the way to the Friar’s cell, you’ve already had enough. Then Juliet enters doing it three times. And they go on doing it later.
Mr. Morris’s view of characters is anti-Shakespearean. Nobody here ever changes or develops, and the lovers, whose body language is unaltered by, among other things, a night naked in bed together, continue doing the same couple-dancing motifs that their elders were doing at the start of the ballroom scene.
Lifts proliferate; even the Nurse’s servant, Peter, lifts her so that her pelvis is above his head. Mr. Morris, incurably politically correct, makes Juliet lift Romeo (countless times) higher than he lifts her, but he has no notion of how to make poetry from lifts high or low. (In the Kenneth MacMillan version the first time he lifts her, her feet are scarcely off the ground, and the effect is one of purest wonder.)
Large stretches of dance music, especially in the Act II crowd scenes, are left undanced; dancing is set to several passages of nondance music. This version of the ballet has a four-part divertissement when Paris arrives to marry Juliet: one part is entirely new music, but, new or familiar, Mr. Morris gives them all his most repetitious and staggeringly banal choreography. In the score’s most famous episode, the Dance of the Capulets, Mr. Morris’s group dance is rhythmically tedious from the beginning.
By the time the main Act I love duet (no balcony here) is over, you wonder if Mr. Morris has any ear whatsoever for the shape of a melody. To the score’s most ravishing passage (first heard in the overture), where a high cantilena floats over tripping heartthrobs, Mr. Morris gives some poses to Romeo, then Juliet does some poses, and they end by doing nothing much together. When this melody returns in the bedroom duet, Mr. Morris ends it by having them roll on the bed. Where is his ear? What kind of musicality is this?
This Verona is synthetic, a version of the Renaissance that is postmodern in its time-traveling and Toytown in scale. The walls of Allen Moyer’s set are outsize marquetry; the piazza is dotted with quattrocento architecture of doll’s-house size; the men fight with wooden swords; Mercutio and Tybalt are played by women. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are simplified and updated Renaissance. (Codpieces are worn. Since Prokofiev’s music relies on such non-Renaissance forms as the waltz, Mr. Morris goes further, throwing into the mix various social dance forms ranging from 1400 to 1970. The result is camp, artificial, wiseguy. Likewise the range of hand gestures — now traditional Italian, now bad ballet, now labored Morris motifs — is ludicrously inconsistent.
I want to praise the dancers of this anti-“Romeo,” but Mr. Morris keeps stopping me. They’re so spontaneous; but he’s so schematic, and he wins. Though the second-cast Romeo and Juliet (Noah Vinson and especially Maile Okamura) were better than the first (David Leventhal and the boringly lovely Rita Donahue), they — as with Twyla Tharp’s double-cast “Rabbit and Rogue” for American Ballet Theater recently — only made me dislike the choreography more keenly. It wastes all these performers, makes them look lightweight, reduces their freshness to mere charm.