Prokofiev and the elusive search for happiness

Renaissance Venice, Antarctica, a Tibetan temple, a Bollywood wedding and the lovers’ death in the desert are all part of the mix in Graeme Murphy’s interpretation of Romeo & Juliet that had its Sydney premiere last week.

Most of the settings are a metaphor for timeless love that transcends all boundaries.

In Murphy’s scenario, the lovers move in and out of reality as they escape the confinement of the rigid world in which their families live and make war.

The production has had mixed reviews, with the latest, in The Sydney Morning Herald, suggesting that audiences ignore the settings and concentrate on the choreography.

That’s difficult, as the settings are so powerful in their contrasting ways and apparently so randomly selected. One can imagine Antarctica as a place where bitterness seeps into the bones of the warring Capulets and Montagues and a desert as an arid place of death. But why an Asian temple and an Indian marketplace and the oddest setting of all, a little boat that floats under a bridge around which bicycles with blinking lights are propelled by vaguely 1940s-attired riders?

Unlike Murphy’s Swan Lake, in which Odette is confined to a place where madness drives her to imagine she is one of many swans in a lake, his Romeo & Juliet does not have a strong, unified dramatic story that takes the lovers to the various settings.

He may have been influenced in his concept by too many ideas, one of which appears to be the original Prokofiev score and the interpretations of that score.

Murphy has been planning this production since 2008, the same year in which Prokofiev’s uncensored, 1935 score was played at a festival called the Bard Summerscape, at Bard College, north of New York City.

The score accompanied a new work by choreographer Mark Morris.

The event was reported in several newspaper articles, among them The Independent in the United Kingdom. The writer, Alice Jones, interviewed Simon Morrison, a professor of music at Princeton University, who found the original Prokofiev manuscript in a Moscow archive.

Morrison restored the scenario and score of the 1935 version complete with the happy ending in which Friar Lawrence arrives in time to prevent the deaths of the lovers.

Jones writes that “in Prokofiev’s vision, the love of Romeo and Juliet is infinite, transcending all earthly boundaries and existing in a paradise-like realm”. She quotes Morrison as saying that “the question of whether they live or die becomes moot. They step outside it all. She wakes up and they embrace but the texture is of a magic spell. If they have died, their love lives on. If they live, they’re in another realm. They’ve walked away from the problems that surround them into paradise”.

Another realm – that, I believe, was Murphy’s starting point, hence the multiple locations and his balcony scene that ends with Romeo and Juliet dancing against a starry sky. At the end of this scene, the set disappears and Romeo is left holding one of the stars that descends from the darkness of the sky. They are in Elsewhere, the same as the Somewhere of the lovers in West Side Story.

And Murphy has also followed Prokofiev’s original scenario, playing up the struggle between the old feudal order, signified by the warning families and the young who seek freedom.

But for me, the pivotal balcony scene does not represent the promise of that freedom.

Prokofiev’s music at this point really dictates that the dance must soar and fly while Murphy’s choreography showed a bashful, slightly awkward Romeo, and circular movement patterns that offer the promise of a passionate pas de deux, but which never reach that peak of ardour that the music seems to demand.

In the clip below, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta dance the balcony pas de deux in MacMillan’s production.

This seems to me the perfect interpretation of the music in the sense that the choreography is an expression of ecstasy in both the soaring lifts, and quiet moments, allowing the dancers to clearly show their dramatic abilities as hesitant lovers, at first, who are ultimately carried away by their passion.

As for Prokofiev, he was forced into many revisions of his original score when the work was at last presented in the Soviet Union in the 1940s.

Morrison said that Prokofiev was “dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score. It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it”.

Prokofiev’s last years were distressing and in 1948, five years before his death, his works were denounced by the Soviet regime as too cosmopolitan and formalist.

The tragedy of Prokofiev is an echo of Tchaikovsky’s final years. Two Russian composers, two unhappy lives, and in Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake, two scores that still move us deeply.

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