Sergei Prokofiev abandoned his homeland and his burgeoning career when he fled Russia in the wake of the October Revolution of 1917. After unsatisfying stints in the United States and France, he made the momentous decision in 1936 to resettle permanently in Moscow, and a major factor in that move was Romeo and Juliet. He had agreed in 1934 to create his first full-length ballet, and he worked with a stage director to devise a scenario based on Shakespeare’s tragedy. The original agreement with the Kirov Theater in Leningrad fell apart, and the ballet fizzled again after the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow took over the project, leaving Prokofiev with a score that only reached the stage in 1940. During the wait, he extracted highlights into three orchestral suites for concert performances. This performance weaves together scenes from all three suites.
In the first part of Montagues and Capulets, the embattled clans introduce themselves in a bellicose march. The Minuet sets the scene for guests arriving at an opulent ball, while Juliet the Child captures our heroine’s excitement as she gets ready for the festivities. The party is in full swing in the next section, Masks.
Another portion of Montagues and Capulets prefaces the section titled Romeo & Juliet, featuring music from the scene in which Romeo spies Juliet on her balcony (which in the ballet progresses to a romantic dance together). The sweet and gentle music of Friar Laurence comes from the ballet’s second act, when Romeo approaches the kindly friar and confesses his love for Juliet. Death of Tybalt concludes the first suite with some of the ballet’s most lively and harrowing music. Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb intones a bitter melody over a funereal pulse, and Juliet’s Death brings the entire tragedy to rest.