Sergei Prokofiev is one of the most iconic figures in the history of Russian ballet. He is widely known for subverting the tropes of the art form at the time, being widely seen as a maverick whose unorthodox methods were simultaneously criticized, lauded and ultimately enormously influential. Perhaps his crowning work is his interpretation of Romeo and Juliet which he decided to compose after being commissioned by the Mariinsky Theater in Moscow which was known as the Kirov.
Prokofiev wanted to do a ballet that would adapt one of the greatest love stories ever told, and he settled on Romeo and Juliet because he felt that other love stories such as Tristan and Isolde and Pelleas et Melisande already had strong musical components that he would have ended up getting compared to. He retreated to the town of Polenevo where, surrounded by some of the greatest artists of the time, he ended up composing the glorious music for the ballet on piano within four months. The duration in which he managed to create his work is quite astonishing when you notice the complexities of the music and how moving it still sounds.
One of the most controversial yet iconic artistic decisions that Sergei made for his ballet was to change the ending. Instead of the tragic fate that meets the protagonists in Shakespeare’s original play, Prokofiev’s ballet celebrated the triumph of love over hate. It was a unique ending that shocked many, but the more visionary critics of the time such as Shakespeare scholar Sergei Dinamov approved seeing Prokofiev’s vision for what it truly was and understanding that the work may have been adapted from an original source but was actually meant to be an artistic statement in its own right.
Vladimir Mutnikh, owner of the Bolshoi which was the Kirov’s greatest rival and remains so for the Mariinsky today, was so taken by the ballet that he acquired it and decided to premier it in the year 1937. However, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Mutnikh ended up being targeted by Stalin during the dictators regime where hundreds of thousands of people were killed. As a result of this, anyone that was associated with Mutnikh ended up finding themselves in harm’s way as well.
As a result of these tumultuous times, Prokofiev’s original ballet became lost. Eventually it was acquired by the Kirov yet again but the proprietor of the theater ended up making heavy changes in order to distance it from the version Mutnikh had been about to premier. Prokofiev was not consulted for these changes, and as a result his masterwork became something else entirely.
The original Romeo and Juliet ballet remained lost for a time. Now, interpretations of Prokofiev’s version are being performed based on his sheet music, and the orchestration is strikingly different from what Russian ballet was at the time. It serves as a snapshot of history, of a time when a troubled genius was at his best.