"Romeo and Juliet”
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 20 (matinee) and 23 (evening),

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2007 by Susan Reiter

Nearly twenty-two years after she made her ABT debut in the role, Alessandra Ferri gave her final performance with the company as Juliet in the Kenneth Macmillan ballet that has been one of signature roles. Reviewing that performance (in which her Romeo was her current boss, Kevin McKenzie) in the New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff noted her “dramatic temperament” and “instant rapport with the audience,” and both of those have only deepened over the decades. Her utter commitment to her portrayal, and way seemingly spontaneous way she imbues her movement with emotional color, have made her a consummate interpreter of Macmillan heroines, and his ballets have been touchstones throughout her career, even as she ventures into more purely classical, and other contemporary, roles.

So it was fitting that she rounded out her ABT tenure with four appearances as Manon (two more than originally scheduled) and this final Juliet, after making a debut in another Shakespearean portrait of fervent, touching devotion as Desdemona in Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello” last month. Julio Bocca having already retired, she turned to her regular La Scala partner, Roberto Bolle, for these final appearances.

Standing room was packed three deep (including a healthy contingent of her loyal Japanese fans who were evidently in attendance) and the atmosphere was definitely that of an Event. Inevitably, fervent applause greeted Ferri’s first scene, drowning out several measures of the music. Eschewing demure girlishness, she leaped onstage with impassioned fervor, immediately establishing Juliet as a young woman who rushes headlong into what life has to offer. Reacting to her parents’ introduction of Paris and the concept of marriage, she already took some private delight in her sensual allure, testing his reactions to her as she bourréed with delight as well as slight reluctance. She seemed ready to plunge into this new phase of life that was being opened to her.

Early on, her Juliet felt propelled by a fateful awareness and a readiness to embrace fully whatever consequences her love delivered. One thought of Martha Graham’s description of a “doom-eager” heroine. Informed by her Nurse of Romeo’s identity, she registered the shock. Fully absorbing the implications of the news, she clung to every passionate moment from then on as though in defiance of fate.

In the duets that MacMillan crafted so brilliantly, Ferri and Bolle delivered every ounce of expressive potential diving into the music and being swept along as though everything was happening for the very first time. Thanks to his height and strength, she is able to wrap and fold and entwine herself effortlessly and daringly. They brought out the gradually escalating rapture of the balcony duet, to the point where their inevitable yet surprising kiss felt dangerous in its intensity. The duet before their parting in the bedroom burned with despair and the inability to control their own fates.

Ferri came most fully into her own in the duets, reconfirming through her fully committed dancing how innately she understands the choreography’s full potential. Her extended third-act dramatic moments were touching more because of the occasion than her investment in the drama; she appeared rather sullen and rained for extended periods, and her “soliloquy” as she contemplated what to do was not as subtly conveyed as on other occasions. But both she and Bolle pulled out the stops in the tomb scene. However tasteless some of the hoisting of Juliet’s limp body may be, and its lack of subtlety as an expression of Romeo’s anguish, they gave it their all and made the lifeless final image all the more poignantly sorrowful.

Bolle, in addition to his fluent, confident partnering in the role, met its considerable demands with technical panache while also creating a convincingly boyish, ardent Romeo. Early on, one sensed his easy rapport with Benvolio (a crisp, stylish Jared Matthews) and Mercutio (Herman Cornejo, dancing with brilliant ease while imbuing the character with rebellious, sly impudence), and it was clear that the sudden, deep love he discovered at the ball immediately removed him from his familiar comfort zone. His persona is an appealing blend of masculine vigor and sweet earnestness, and it is exciting to witness such a tall man dancing with both crisp precision and fleet expansiveness.

The audience stood as soon as the final curtain fell, and a parade of partners, fellow ballerinas and company staff arrived from both sides of the stage to embrace Ferri and offer bouquets, as a well-timed shower of golden petals cascaded over the stage. There was a particularly touching hug between her and Julie Kent, as well as the moment without which the evening would have felt incomplete, when she finally lured Bocca onstage, standing between him and Bolle during one of her numerous bows in front of the curtain. Joined by her two daughters (dressed in red and clearly quite happy to make repeated appearances on stage), she waved often, bowed to the company, and looked suspiciously non ballerina-like, as though launching the transition to “regular person” or even “mom” in front of our eyes.

Three days earlier, the company’s newest Juliet made her New York debut. Gillian Murphy, who had first danced the role earlier this year in Chicago, radiates confidence and strength, and is tall enough not to seem, at first glance, a natural for the role. But this has really been her breakout season; she was cast in every ballet in the repertory and has been diversifying and deepening as a performer in front of our eyes. Alongside David Hallberg’s golden, poetic Romeo, she etched a portrayal in which the purity and power of her classical technique scored dramatic points in themselves. She does not possess anything like Ferri’s complete absorption in the role, or reckless abandon, but she was a mesmerizing and persuasive Juliet on her own terms.

Before encountering Romeo, she was clearly a girl on the cusp of womanhood, clinging to the uncomplicated life she’d known but also intrigued by new possibilities. Introduced to Paris (an elegant and amiable portrayal by Grant DeLong), she as not so much blushingly timid as unaware and a bit fearful of this aspect of her life that was being abruptly introduced. Her strong, serene bourrées — backing away from him to the Nurse’s protective territory, and circling her several times — spoke eloquently of resistance, amid a tinge of fascination, with what he represented.

Meeting Romeo, she dove into what she clearly felt was her destiny, with no turning back, welcoming it with optimistic openness and no sense of foreboding. Murphy conveyed increasing rapture in their ballroom duet, as her tremulous fascination blossomed and she gained confidence in her own emotions. Hallberg’s Romeo, a convincingly love-struck swain around Rosaline in the early scenes, was clearly not prepared for the powerful immersion of what he was discovering with Juliet. In both the ballroom and the balcony scene, they emphasized the expansiveness of the partnering, both dancing with a clarity and dynamism that undercut the sometimes tortured acrobatics. These were young people confidently inhaling the richness of life, and the societal machinations that darkened all their glowing energy became all the more cruel.

At both performances, Frederick Franklin’s two brief scenes as Friar Laurence glowed with touching sincerity and fervor. Within a few seconds, he registered the inner conflict and doubt about which course to take when confronted with the palpitating emotions of the young lovers, as well as the protective bastion he provides for the young lovers amid the surrounding strife. The audience, particularly on Saturday, greeted his first entrance with deserved applause.

Isaac Stappas contributed a powerful portrait of Tybalt, without resorting to stock villainous emphasis, on both occasions. This was someone who had absorbed, and always lived with, the longstanding hatred between the families and could brook no possibility of anything changing, or overriding, that status quo. Taking up the sword to fight was second nature to him – just the way things are done, and his “come and get me” stance of defiance toward Romeo, who was reeling from the death of Mercutio, was a vivid moment.

Victor Barbee, as Lord Capulet at both performances, registered tender affection and delight in his blossoming daughter in the early scenes, which only made his fierce treatment of her when she rebelled against his wishes all the more harsh and upsetting.

Photo: Alessandra Ferri as Juliet. Photo by Fabrizio Ferri.

Volume 5, No. 25
June 25, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Susan Reiter

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