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REVIEW: NUREYEV'S 'ROMEO AND JULIET' AT THE PARIS OPERA

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 29 APRIL 2016 — "I’m still alive as long as my ballets are danced" were amongst the last words spoken by Rudolf Nureyev, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. These words could never have been more poignant than in the recent performance of his super production of Romeo and Juliet staged at the Opéra Bastille in Paris in April where blighted love, violence, and death are the components of Shakespeare’s classic story.

There was the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris in a powerfully splendid rendering of Prokofiev’s 1934 music dictating the course of the action, Ezio Frigerio’s spectacular décor and sumptuous costumes directly inspired by Italian Renaissance paintings and Nureyev’s choreography which so closely follows both the score and each page of Shakespeare’s play. The ballet has become one of the best-loved works in the Paris Opera’s repertoire and every time the production is programmed it plays to full houses and is always enthusiastically received.  However, on the 10th of April, there was a last-minute cast change featuring Mathias Heymann as Romeo with Léonore Baulac as Juliet and it did not take long for the audience to realise that it was witnessing an exceptional performance with an ‘all-star’ cast in the truest sense. As the curtain came down the dancers were greeted by roars, cheers and unstoppable applause. Something magical had happened with two young dancers who had never before been programmed together.


Romeo and Juliet
Choreography: Rudolf Nureyev
Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris
Photo: Julien Benhamou

24-year-old Léonore Baulac, recently promoted to the rank of première danseuse, was the Juliet that dreams are made of. She has the perfect face and physique for the role allied to an impeccable technique. Beguilingly young, her dramatic gifts and musicality given free rein, she brought the passionate and impetuous young girl to life, enchanting not only her Romeo, but each spectator in the crowded amphitheatre. Chosen by Patricia Ruanne, who created the role of Juliet in 1977, in conjunction with Ballet Mistress, Clothilde Vayer, who had also worked with Nureyev,  Baulac had not only never interpreted the role before, but had also never danced with étoile Mathias Heymann. Until a couple of months ago, this lovely girl was mere corps de ballet.


Léonore Baulac in Romeo and Juliet
Choreography: Rudolf Nureyev
Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris
Photo: Julien Benhamou

When the two met at the Capulet’s ball, it was not only their first meeting in the ballet but their first meeting on stage in roles they had rehearsed with other partners. The emotional impact of their meeting was not feigned; it was indeed love at first sight.  This is not the first time that electricity passes and a miracle happens between two artists who had never expected to dance together, but it is nevertheless something that only happens rarely.

Romeo, a gentle boy in love with the idea of love goes to the ball in hopes of meeting Rosaline, but is enraptured by Juliet who responds eagerly to his ardour. From that moment on she becomes the pivot of the work, with Romeo, superb Mathias Heymann, in tune with her every whim.  She is the one who takes the decisions; she is the one who is determined to make things work.

Heymann, with his high soft  jumps and natural, unforced line, is one of the Paris Opera’s finest dancers and in the couple’s sublime pas de deux, both in the balcony scene and again in the bedroom after their secret marriage, the choreography became pure emotion.  Romeo’s exuberant trios with Mercutio, Francois Alu, spirited and full of mischief in his finest role since Frollo*, and Benvolio, Fabien Révillion, were show-stopping as the three of them vied with each other as to who could perform the highest leaps, perform the most difficult steps. Révillion, galvanized by the virtuosity of the other two, was in fine form. Also of note was the thrilling duo when Benvolio goes to break the news of Juliet’s ‘death’ to Romeo who crashes backwards through the air into his friend’s arms.  


François Alu in Romeo and Juliet
Choreography: Rudolf Nureyev
Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris
Photo: Julien Benhamou

Even the secondary roles, of Rosaline, Sarah Kora Dayanova, who rebuffs Romeo’s early advances, Lady Capulet, the determined Stéphanie Romberg as Juliet’s mother who precipitates the tragedy by forcing her daughter into an unacceptable marriage to Paris, and Alexandra Cardinale, a Shakespearean, sensual nanny were excellent. The only odd casting was to have Florian Magnenet as Tybalt, not seen at his best as Juliet’s morose and vindicative cousin. However, he did his job well enough, throwing his dagger at Mercutio’s back, arousing the anger of Romeo’s kinsmen.

Rudolf Nureyev’s chief inspiration for the ballet came from reading and rereading Shakespeare’s play, plus all works relevant to it that he could lay his hands on, Charles Jude** told me. The brief prologue and epilogue of the men throwing dice as well as the opening scene of the dead bodies from the plague come from his early reading of Boccaccio, one of Shakespeare’s own sources, while the acrobats who perform the flag-waving dance in Act 11 were inspired by a visit to Sienna. Also, Jude continued, Nureyev was very influenced by Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting which he repeatedly showed to the cast, insisting on the fact that it was also the story of a boy who becomes a man and a young girl who develops into a mature young woman.


Léonore Baulac and Mathias Heymann in Romeo and Juliet
Choreography: Rudolf Nureyev
Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris
Photo: Julien Benhamou

Rudolf Nureyev’s highly theatrical vision of the Shakespearian tragedy is set to the background of a turbulent Verona. The sunny squares are open-air theatres where life and death take turns on the Wheel of Fortune with adolescents fighting to the death in the streets. However, upon leaving the theatre, one realized with this performance that what one saw had become almost secondary to what one felt.  Such were the intensity of the performances that one left happy and uplifted despite the tragic ending.
 
*Frollo is the archdeacon of Notre Dame in Roland Petit’s ballet of the same name

** Charles Jude, nominated étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1977, is currently artistic director of the Ballet of Bordeaux.
 

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.



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