Romeo and Juliet, Terme di Caracalla
Upon his return to the Soviet Union in 1936, after almost two decades of self-imposed exile, Sergei Prokofiev was determined to make a strong statement. He took a commission from the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad (today's Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg) to write a ballet, and he had every intention to make it larger-than-life. With this goal in mind, Prokofiev considered several powerful epic narratives, like Tristan and Isolde or Pelléas et Mélisande. However, instead of competing with Richard Wagner and Claude Debussy, respectively, the Russian master ultimately decided to base his Soviet comeback on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, arguably the best-known tragic love story of all time.
After picking his source material, Prokofiev quickly produced an annotated piano score, which already featured the ballet's calling-card motifs. It is noteworthy that the composer and his writer Adrian Piotrovsky took considerable liberties with Shakespeare's original story, most importantly opting for a happy ending, with Romeo and Juliet alive and dancing away into bliss. Due to ongoing political repressions against the Soviet artistic elite in 1936-1937, Romeo and Juliet was premiered in Brno, then-Czechoslovakia, on 30 December 1938.
Although Romeo and Juliet was a success ever since its somewhat tortured premiere, the Soviet censorship was relentless and forced Prokofiev to make extensive changes to both the music and the plot. As a result, the version that debuted at the Kirov Theatre in 1940 follows the Shakespeare original more closely and features the classic tragic ending. This final incarnation of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet will also grace the stage of Terme di Caracalla in Rome this season.
Even if Sergei Prokofiev had an unexpected and painful encounter with Soviet censorship and political intrigue, it did not prevent him from creating the classic ballet he had envisioned. The score to Romeo and Juliet is one of the composer's most recognisable and evocative works. It is perhaps most famous for the rolling, menacing arpeggios of 'Dance of the Knights', the exhilarating, ethereal 'Love Dance' between Romeo and Juliet, or the tragic theme to 'Juliet's Funeral'.
Between those musical and emotional extremes, Prokofiev's composition and orchestration efforts here are a masterclass in characterisation and stylistic variability. The different characters receive distinct, atmospheric musical treatments - the lovers' tunes soar and tug at the heart strings, the feuding families' scenes are punctuated by march-like motifs, and the comic characters dance to appropriately quirky melodies. Against the odds, Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is a timeless masterpiece, and you can see it come to life once more at the Baths of Caracalla!