"Romeo and Juliet"
Salzburg Municipal Theatre
February 17, 2011
by Horst Koegler
copyright 2011 by Horst Koegler
Dancewise, Salzburg is a difficult town. On the one hand, it belongs, with Bayreuth and Edinburgh, to the premier league of international festivals, but this refers only to its opera and concert programmes, with ballet and dance functioning occasionally as an adjunct, so that – some eternity ago – the appearance of Béjart´s then historical Ballet of the 20th century (with Boulez conducting Stravinsky´s “Les Noces and “Sacre du printemps”) and Hamburg Ballet with Neumeier´s “Matthew Passion” and the Mozart-“Requiem” are remembered as highlights.
It runs its local Municipal Theatre (Landestheater) on a ten months base, offering subsciption performances of opera, drama and operettas plus musicals, with some rare ballet evenings, as it has to entertain a small group of dancers to appear in the opera and operetta/musical productions. While in the past there has been little continuity in their offerings, due to the constant change of ballet-masters, this has somewhat improved over recent seasons, especially during the last two years, since the theatre is run by a younger Intendant (General Manager), who obviously belongs to the rare species of ballet fans.
Anyway Peter Breuer, now in his twentieth season as artistic director and chief-choreographer of the Salzburg Ballet, admits that working under the new man – who before coming to Salzburg had been director of Stuttgart´s second drama ompany and has obviously been infected by that city´s notorious ballet bug – has become considerably easier with his company of twelve dancers being strengthened to sixteen for the present season, while he hopes for another four for the new season.
Breuer is an experienced ballet man. Coming from Munich he had enjoyed an international career. He had been promoted early to principal dancer status with companies like the English National, La Scala di Milano and even ABT, before beoming a regular with German top-companies in Duesseldorf, Munich and Berlin. He is clearly a danse d´école man, but wide open to contemporary influences, very theatrically minded, having been breast-fed with music instead of milk, and he is a brilliant craftsman, both as a classicist in the studio as well as a producer who knows how to stage a good show. He is a strong advocate of the ballet d´action, many of his works being based on literary classics like Peer Gynt, Carmen, Lulu, Faust and Tchaikovsky, but who has also a clever hand in arranging pop-spectacles like his recent “Marilyn” or his forthcoming “Bach´n´Drums”.
He has now for the first time been allowed a whole Ballet Week, with works from the repertory playing to sold-out houses. I always wondered why he, who belongs to the rare brand of choreographers who can tell a story and knows how to sustain the tension of a full-evening ballet, has been shunned by the Vienna State Opera, which is in desperate need of works to attract bigger audiences, but which has, since the times of Nureyev, staged only flops as far as dramatic pieces are concerned. But at that house they prefer to have bigger names, even if their creative output is of limited quality only.
Breuer has danced during his long and distinguished career in six productions of “Romeo and Juliet” – not only as the protagonist but also Mercutio, Benvolio and Tybalt – so he knows very well the gangs of Shakespeare and Prokofiev´s Verona. And from this experience his production profits enormously. It develops an unstoppebal energetic, even avalanching drive, is in two parts and lasts, with one intermission 125 minutes. Unfortunately it is not accompanied by a live orchestra but has to rely on canned sound, but as it is based on a recording conducted by Valery Gergiev, it fills the rather small Salzburg house (707 seats) with blazing orchestral opulence.
Breuer and his close cooperator Andreas Geier have done some skilled dramaturgical surgery to adapt the story to their limited resources, but it has been so cleverly executed that time and again I discovered myself musing about from where the well-accustomed music in the original score had come from. It fitted the newly constructed action as if it had been composed for that very scene (Breuer is a genuinely musical man – his father was an experienced pianist – who derives from the Balanchine tradition).
His “Romeo and Juliet” opens with dancers strolling in for a class and rehearsel and Dorin Gal, Breuer´s familiar collaborator as a designer, has set the stage like a studio with a barre and a lot of mirros which widen the room considerably.
The dancers do their private warming up, chatting with each other, stretching their limbs until the ballet-master appears and starts the class. Among the latecomers is Juliet with her mother - both women wear headscarfs and are obviously of Muslim origin as is the bulky young man, Juliet´s brother Tybalt, who looks like a younger Humphrey Bogart and views the goings on between the dancers with despicable mistrust. Juliet joins her colleagues, but soon she loosens her hair and takes off her headscarf, very much to the anger of her brother, while her mother gets more and more excited about her daughter´s progress during the exercises and Romeo, the star of the class, is smitten by her the moment he gets aware of her – while she soon abandons her geuine shyness and gets as fascinated by him as she falls prey to his charms.
From this moment on the world has changed for both of them and they seem to live in a different time and sphere of their own, hardly aware of the reactions of their colleagues. While the mother visibly blossoms watching her daughter´s progress, noted also by the ballet-master who promotes her to ballerina status, Tybalt´s features darken dangerously and he openly shows his hate and contempt of what he considers the moral depravity of the whole milieu.
During the rehearsel the scene opens up, some more people appear (Breuer mobilizes a contingent of extras but there is no hint that they are citizens and people of Verona at renaissance times, but just young folk of today who enjoy an outing from their normal business. For this Gal has built an anormous scaffold with two connected towers which are used for a lot of fun-making and acrobatics (it´s the carnival and the ballroom scene rolled into one, suggesting a merry-making crowd – actually the place looks chaotic like Times Square at rush-hour). The action proceeds with turbo-speed, with lots of dances, individually and collectively. Breuer draws the roles of Rosalinde and the girl-friends of Juliet with characteristic strokes, so that one has the feeling, that every one of them has an individual backgrouod – a story of his or her own, with small jealousies, competitions and trials of strength, of amorous pursuits and teasing each other. But tension mounts and darkens whenever Tyalt appears.
The climax of the first act is a performance of the ballet the dancers had rehearsed before, in front of an audience, with Juliet and Romeo as stars, which is brutally interrupted by Tybalt who tries to save Juliet from these uncouth surroundings, gets involved with Mercutio whom he kills from behind which infuriates Romeo who now attacks Tybalt and injures him deadly. There is a terrible brawl with a great lamento scene for Juliet´s Mother, who mourns her dead son – but which staged by Breuer and acted by Cristina Laki surpasses anything I have seen before though I have witnessed dozens of Romeo-productions all over the world, including Ilyushenko at the Bolshoi, Fonteyn with the Royal Ballet or Haydée in Stuttgart – an actress suggesting a performance of Duse or Sarah Bernhard nobility.
The second act opens with Romeo in complete despair, who is comforted by Lorenzo (he is the ballet-master of the first act), envisioning again the death of Mercutio. Then Lorenzo proceeds to marry the two lovers, with the mother split between her loyalty to her daughter, while on the other side she intoduces her to four other young men (so that Juliet almost appears like the victim in”Sacre du printemps” – it’s like Count Paris split up among four, a splendid occasion to show off the virility of a quartet of boys from the Salzburg corps. But rather than continuing the direct story telling of the first act, the second act develops more in episodes exploring the emotions of the individuals, and to this belongs a short pas de deux between the mother and the ballet-master revealing her so far suppressed amorous longings (both the roles of the mother – who sees her youthful dreams fulfilled by the ballerina qualifications of her daughter - and of the ballet-master are thus considerably enriched, and Laki and Josef Vesely perform them with appropriate acting competence.
But it is the end, for which Breuer has saved a completely surprising solution for their infinitely caring and tender love pas de deux, Juliet and Romeo get stripped to the buff wearing nothing but a slip and a bra, he builds up an enormously passionate erotic encounter, which proceeds like a tornado as performed by Lilja Markina (she comes fom Moscow) and Daniel Asher Smith (he is Australian) releasing all their so far strongly kept back emotions so that they perform like an elementary furor, for which the heavens open and the rain pours down (very Salzburg like), flooding the whole stage, amidst which the two lovers are grappling for each other, during which a steep wall over the whole breadth of the stage rises, with all the people trying in vain to climb, always slipping of and being hurrled back to the ground, while the two lovers separately manage to finally climb to the highest level, obviously cleaned now fom all their earthly burdens – like having received their final baptism – pushing themselves – Tosca-like – into the abyss behind, while m the heavens light up and the Michelangelo motive of the two hands with stretched fingertips reaching for each other (remember “Apollo”?) gets projected - a sort of different (very different) apotheosis of immortal love.
Photos: all copyright: Jürgen Frahm)
Daniel Asher Smith (Romeo) and Liliya Markina (Juliette) and the company.