Romeo and Juliet
London, Royal Opera House
10 January 2012
Kenneth MacMillan’s sprawling blockbuster of a ballet has never been long out of the repertory here at Covent Garden since its creation in 1965. Its continued popularity at the box office has ensured that. Sometimes in recent years it has seemed that the Royal’s willingness to profit from this popularity has meant that that repeated exposure has dented the freshness and vibrancy required on stage. But there are no complaints on that particular score in terms of this opening performance of the current run. This is due to the committed and compelling performances of Carlos Acosta as Romeo and Tamara Rojo as his Juliet.
These young lovers are portrayed by mature performers. There may not be many Romeos left for Acosta, who is 40 next year, and now looking to develop a dance career in more contemporary pieces. His turns may not be so fast or his jumps quite as high as they once were at their dizzying best: but what a charismatic performer he remains, an entirely believable larky lad about town in Verona, and what a strong and sympathetic partner to Rojo.
We have been lucky to have Acosta here at the Royal since 1998. He will leave us with many happy memories. Some of my own particular favourites include his Siegfried with Rojo as Odette, and an outrageously virtuosic and fun Diana and Actaeon pas de deux with Nunez at Sadler’s Wells. Here as Romeo he looks as dazed by love after encountering Juliet at the ball as if he had been hit over the head with a brick. His teasing interactions with a lively Jose Martin as Mercutio do make the pair look like familiar old mates.
Rojo gave a remarkable performance of compelling clarity of exposition, where each step and movement told the audience of the character’s inner life. She charts the progress of the adolescent girl to the woman clearly: from the first the first childish fumbles with the doll in Act 1 she progresses to a grown woman with no choices left in Act 3. In the scene in act 3 where she finally accepts Paris as a husband each changing thought registers. The very act of stepping shakily forward on pointe to grasp his hand becomes a statement of acceptance of fate. She passes through a last flash of adolescent stroppiness and hysteria and then comes to the cold assessment of adulthood as she accepts the future.
Rojo and Acosta together are a remarkable team, each feeding the other. The thought of any technical difficulties doesn’t occur while watching them. What we see in the balcony pas de deux is what we all want to feel when in the first heady flush of love: how you run to your lover and he flings you in the air, spins you round and round, and holds you aloft because love makes you feel as if you can fly. At the very end the dying Juliet struggles to reach Romeo across the tomb: on this occasion, Rojo permitted herself to reach his hand for one last time.
Among the rest of the cast, I’d like to mention Christopher Saunders as Juliet’s father, who he makes a much more rounded and nuanced character than we often see. At the ball he is an urbane and charming host, and he has evidently taken the Prince’s warning to mind when trying to keep Gary Avis’s twitchily aggressive Tylbalt in check. Juliet is obviously a Daddy’s girl: but Daddy’s indulgence very clearly has its limits. Gary Avis very clearly is still smarting from the humiliations of the ball scene when he emerges for a fight at the close of Act 2: you can feel the stoked-up heat of his smouldering resentment. He isn’t just the straightforward bully that he can sometimes be portrayed as: he’s just been pushed too far.
The side stalls circle seats have been removed for this production and the effect here (at least from a seat in the stalls circle) is to make the surges of sound from the pit louder, more dramatic and enveloping, heightening the contrasts in the score.
The corps do their dancing, bickering and fighting in the marketplace with a will, though in this production there still seems at times to be far too much of this in Act 2 and not enough Juliet. The production stands or falls by the strength of the central performances, and on this occasion we were fortunate indeed.