Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Yesterday, I had a post hailing Swan Lake, if it can still be hailed, after all these years (and it can). I propose to do the same with another ballet: Romeo and Juliet, by Prokofiev.

Years ago, Mstislav Rostropovich conducted it in Washington. He had dancers on the stage. And the orchestra. He himself was at the very back, facing both the orchestra and the dancers. At least that’s the way I recall it. I’m pretty sure I remember correctly.

Anyway, it was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had in a concert hall or theater.

Years later, I met someone—a musician—who had been there. When I gave him my opinion, he said, gratifyingly, “Me too.”

Last week, the American Ballet Theatre, at the Metropolitan Opera House, presented Romeo and Juliet. Dancing Juliet was Isabella Boylston, who was endearing and, in the end, enthralling. My impression was that she had taken care of all technical problems, leaving her free to act—to dance-act, if you will.

I have seen great Juliets, and somehow don’t expect new ones to measure up. But they do. Certainly Isabella Boylston does.

The orchestra was conducted by Charles Barker, who did his job, as did the orchestra. And now I’d like to pose a question: How much freedom does a ballet conductor have? How much freedom does he have to conduct according to musical dictates, with dancers on the stage, who may have their own priorities?

Sometime in the 2000s, New York had two performances of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in rapid succession. One was conducted by Lorin Maazel in Avery Fisher Hall (as it was known then). This was a concert performance—no dancers. The other was conducted by Valery Gergiev in the Metropolitan Opera House, across the plaza. This time, there were dancers.

Maazel’s performance was far freer, and more musical. People said, “Of course! He did not have the constraints of the dancers! Gergiev’s hands were tied.”

I’m sure that’s true, certainly to a degree. But I have had conflicting testimony on this subject, from conductors.

Gianandrea Noseda told me that he conducts ballet music, with dancers, pretty much as music. The dancers sometimes squawk, but he has been able to bring them around. Esa-Pekka Salonen told me that he was fired—canned from a ballet job, because, cheeky, he made the dancers fall on their cans.

Which brings me to one of my favorite musical anecdotes. It won’t surprise you that it features that font of anecdotes, Sir Thomas Beecham. One night, he conducted Coppélia at exceptionally brisk tempos. The dancers surely had to step lively. Putting down his baton, Sir Thomas remarked to the orchestra, “Made the buggers hop.”

Probably, Romeo and Juliet is the greatest thing Prokofiev ever wrote, which is maybe saying too little, because this score is possibly the greatest thing that anyone ever wrote. But sticking to Prokofiev: What else in his oeuvre can match it? A symphony or two? A piano concerto (No. 3)? A violin concerto (either)? A few of the piano sonatas? Another ballet, Cinderella?

Romeo and Juliet is virtually perfect. And it is hard to bring off perfection at such length. You can write a miniature. (Chopin’s Prelude in A major—which takes under a minute. Unlike his “Minute Waltz,” which takes well over a minute.) But a ballet of two and a half hours? It has its weaknesses—its lapses into mediocrity—but damn few.

Romeo and Juliet is both great as a whole and eminently excerptable. Or suite-able. In my experience, there are three common encores from Russian orchestras. They are the Trepak from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker; the March from The Love for Three Oranges, a Prokofiev opera; and the Death of Tybalt, from Romeo and Juliet.

The other night at the Met, I was particularly aware of the flute part in this ballet. It is prominent and excellent. Prokofiev knew how to write for this instrument—as witness his Flute Sonata. It was so coveted by David Oistrakh, Prokofiev converted it into a violin sonata, and it is probably this version that most people know today.

I have another question for you: If you had no idea that Romeo and Juliet—Prokofiev’s score—related to Shakespeare’s play, would you connect it to the play? If not that, would you know that the music told a love story? “Sure!” you may be tempted to say. “Besides, the music matches the play, the action, the tragedy, step by step and word for word, from beginning to end.” Okay. But you may say that because you know the composer’s intention. You know he is writing a ballet Romeo and Juliet.

But say you didn’t. What then? The music would still be immortal—pure music, rather than program music (i.e., music that aims to depict something or to tell a story).

I have never seen Lieutenant Kijé, the movie for which Prokofiev wrote a score out of which he made a famous suite. I have no idea what it’s about. I don’t really care, frankly. The music stands on its own.

For ages, the Lieutenant Kijé Suite was paired, on LPs, with the Háry János Suite, by Kodály. Háry János is a folk opera. I’ve never seen it. Don’t have a clue what it’s about. But the music? It’s music, isn’t it?

Would I have a better understanding of the music, or like it more, if I knew the opera? Possibly. I don’t know. I think I doubt it.

But let me return to Romeo and Juliet, and ABT’s performance: As Isabella Boylston’s Juliet danced with Paris, the unwanted suitor, a baby cried, all through. I thought, “The baby agrees with Juliet. He, or she, doesn’t think the guy is right for her either.”

A Message from the Editors

Since 1982, The New Criterion has nurtured and safeguarded our delicate cultural inheritance. Join our family of supporters and secure the future of civilization.