In William Shakespeare’s tragic story, the power of love joins Romeo and Juliet despite their families being mortal enemies. Yet star-crossed from the beginning, the protagonists ultimately pay for their love with their lives. Since few stories in Western literature pull any harder on the heart's strings, it’s hardly surprising that Sergei Prokofiev’s passionate, vibrant score has made the story indispensable to the ballet repertoire and subject of countless interpretations.

As the brilliant score begins, the orchestra – here under Maestro Michail Jurowski −descends the scale on four notes, then explodes into a shatteringly dissonant chord, foreshadowing horrors of violence and irretrievable loss. The backdrop (Christian Schmidt, set design) is simple and monumental to best serve the story’s human drama, rather than catch us up in distracting detail. A huge and open interior space − much like a 1930s railway station − is framed by huge Doric columns, a single, large paned window and a narrow walkway (read: balcony) above. Props are kept to a bare minimum; a few simple metal tables make a platform for ball guests taking a break from their dancing, but the tables also serve later as a marriage bed, and ultimately, as the funerary slab.

Tars Venderbeek (Paris) and Katja Wünsche (Juliet) © Gregory Batardon
Tars Venderbeek (Paris) and Katja Wünsche (Juliet)
© Gregory Batardon
The lovers couldn’t have been more convincing. Long, lanky, and well cast in the role of Romeo, William Moore has a shock of curly hair like a rock star’s and a physical presence that would make it easy to fall in love with him at any dance. As his willowy Juliet, Katja Wünsche superbly portrayed adolescent naiveté and growing malaise with her parents’ choice of husband. Her reluctance to warm up to Paris (the convincing Tars Vanderbeek) was conveyed in split second tremors and subtle glances that rang wholly authentic. Contrary to the sumptuous and billowing silks of her Elizabethan forebears, (Emma Ryott, costumes), Juliet wore diaphanous fabrics that underscord her innocence, her long hair pulled back like a schoolgirl’s.

The two dancers' command of the highly complex and distinctive choreography was matched by consummate acting skills. There was one particularly poignant gesture that spoke of new love: in a state of utter bliss, Juliet drew her fingers down the full length of Romeo’s face like a blind person might do. Romeo would repeat the gesture of discovery, even when he enters her tomb expecting their reunion, and finds what he believes is Juliet’s corpse instead. Prokofiev’s familiar music swells there at its most emotive against a fabulous backdrop of more than a hundred burning candles, but even more startlingly is Romeo’s agonized scream from the tomb when he acknowledges her “death”; its sheer volume and his horrible grimace were bloodcurdling. Even worse, he suffers the effects of poisoning just as Juliet awakens beside him. Contrary to Shakespeare’s original, he is still alive for just a brief moment: a simple liberty taken for dramatic effect.

Among the principals, Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Daniel Mulligan) was also danced brilliantly. The character’s relentless niggling of Tybalt (the superbly noble Christian Alex Assis), and their savvy in fencing felt much the real thing. Indeed, the demanding fight choreography throughout – metal foils whipping around at warp speed − was clean and powerful.

Katja Wünsche (Juliet) and William Moore (Romeo) © Monika Rittershaus
Katja Wünsche (Juliet) and William Moore (Romeo)
© Monika Rittershaus
 But I was not without my misgivings. Elsewhere, much of the choreography for the corps de ballet’s work – in Elizabethan fashion – was largely frontal, their sequences often subject to repetitive gestures and steps. There were too many repetitions of ports de bras in extended second positions épaulées with flexed wrists, and twirling bodies that seemed endlessly propelled. At the end, too, the short appearance of six woman dancers in mock gym suits was strangely superfluous. Overall, the corps visual would have taken benefit from less frenzy and more breathing space.

Further, the role of Friar Laurence role was assigned to Felipe Portugal, one of the company’s most accomplished dancers. While pivotal to the drama, the role was choreographed as passive and emotionless, the round dark specs and stiff posture making the Friar seem like an extraction from the film “Men in Black”. He was even more grim contrasted to Juliet’s amicable − often even comical – nurse (Viktorina Kapitonova). Oddly, the costume designer had assigned her an enormous bustle – or disproportionate bottom of a older woman − even though she acted fresh and young as a new spring day. Granted, the choreography gave these two key characters − Friar and Nurse − a twist, but for me that was anachronistic.

The music, however, took every benefit from the Maestro’s invention. The Philharmonia Zürich conjured up a full gamut of Romantic contrasts and stunning themes. The flute and oboe excelled, and pointed contrasts in volume and color did Prokofiev’s glorious score justice. 

****1