08 March 2020

Romeo and Juliet in Singapore

It was never a specific part of my loose and amazingly wide-ranging job description with the Petronas Philharmonic Hall in Kuala Lumpur, but I was the assiduous archivist.  I know the Malaysian Philharmonic librarians kept their own records, but I noted every single piece of music played in the hall, not just by the MPO but by visiting orchestras and artists, as well as the encores they played.  Funnily enough, when I left and offered this huge database to the management, they told me to destroy it. Whether or not I did remains my little secret, but I do not need to check it to know that in the first 10 years of the hall’s existence, the most frequently performed music was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, it was almost always played in part rather than whole: orchestral suites prepared by the composer as well as by visiting and resident conductors, isolated movements performed by one or two pianos, an organist devising her own arrangements of extracts and, most memorably, a pair of mandolins playing, what for my money, is the most magical moment in the complete score.  The MPO even did it complete on one famous and unforgettable occasion.

But whether whole or in part, the music of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has become phenomenally popular with both performers and audiences.  There are many possible reasons for this, but my own passion for the work – beyond my admiration for the brilliance of Prokofiev’s invention and scoring – is based on its absolutely infectious qualities.  (When it comes to infection, COVID-19 has nothing on Romeo and Juliet killing far less people, per head  – the death rate in R&J works out around 14% as opposed to the 1.4% of COVID-19 as suggested by researchers at the University of Hong Kong.)  But while four people end up dead on stage, it’s not as a result of the musical virus.  That virus infects everyone who comes near the music, and manifests itself in uncontrollable foot tapping and an urge, even amongst fat slobs with gippy knees (like myself), to start dancing.  My 12-year-old daughter, generally immune to the delights of classical music, claims Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet to be her most favourite piece of music, and it was to satisfy her love for the music and her insatiable obsession with dancing, that I arranged for her to go the matinee performance of the Singapore Dance Theatre’s current production of Romeo and Juliet which is on at the Esplanade Theatre until Sunday night.  As it happened, my daughter could not attend so I went alone. 

Matinee performances are not really my scene, and I found myself surrounded by hordes of schoolgirls in their early teens doing what all Singaporean schoolgirls in their early teens do by natural instinct; continually texting each other on their phones and working through their mathematics homework, seemingly oblivious to the action on stage.  But the minute the performance started, I was utterly and completely engrossed, and even the continual chatter of the Greek gentleman behind me translating everything as it happened to his young daughter (although quite what there is to translate in a ballet is all Greek to me) did not for a moment detract from what was, in the true meaning of the word, a mesmerising performance.

As an avid ballet-goer and an even avid-er Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet camp-follower, I suffer that terrible problem of having my own favourite productions by which I subconsciously measure all others.  The auguries were not good for this one.  The lavish and information-packed programme book (what a shame the excellent, if sometimes contentious, words in it were unattributed) warned that Choo-San Goh’s production was very different from the others, in that it “is noted for his invention of a character, danced by a woman, representing Fate”.  I was apprehensive; in my 60s and with dozens of R&J’s under my extensive belt, changes of this magnitude do not sit easily, and I had never seen this particular production before.  Yet from the moment this figure, encased in a grey body-glove, whirred on to stage, I was completely won over.  So powerful a symbol was she that, on each appearance, sliding effortlessly across the stage at speed en pointe, my heart dropped. Not for any other reason than this dramatic presence symbolised the inescapable, unavoidable tragic consequences of the story.  Perhaps the brilliance of the dancer – on Saturday it was performed by Kwok Min Yi – was what made the figure of Fate so fabulous, but as a choreographer’s vision, it was truly inspired.

The dancing from the entire cast was superb.  Juliet (Akira Nakahama) and Romeo (Etienne Ferrรจre) exuded huge and utterly credible characters even in their extraordinarily long-drawn-out deaths, the former a model of grace and fluency, the latter a powerful and sincere presence on stage.  The Nurse (Samantha Kim) was brilliant, as was Friar Laurence (Yann Ek), the latter immensely impressive as he realised his fatal error in handing the potion to Juliet, and his desperate attempt to get her off stage before she espied the corpse of her lover.  Other memorable performances came from Lord and Lady Capulet (Mohamed Noor Sarman and Elaine Heng), especially in the remarkable ballroom dance, and from Tybalt (Reece Hudson), whose physical representation of extreme anger was nothing short of marvellous.

Perhaps, however, if there was a fault in the choreography, it was in a tendency to overuse certain technical devices.  Tybalt’s anger was dramatic first time around, but second time it rather lost its impact, and if poor Juliet was bent double at the back in a lift one more time, I suspect she will have permanent curvature of the spine.  But the choreography also had some dazzlingly brilliant moments.  The three Montagues’ “Masks” dance in the first act was truly breathtaking, as were their various subsequent appearances, and the sword fights were vivid and genuinely edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Every time I attend a performance where an accompanying orchestra is conducted by Joshua Tan, I become even more impressed with his instinctive ability to respond to what is going on on stage.  His timing was effortless yet perfect, his pacing ideal and his command unwavering yet unobtrusive. It’s probably unfair to gauge the quality of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra from a Saturday afternoon matinee performance; suffice it to say that among the many great strengths they exhibited in this performance, intonation and precision of attack were not among them.  But I can only heap oodles of praise on the trumpet section which, throughout, was nothing short of magnificent.

The staging, lighting and entire production worked seamlessly and flawlessly – a great tribute not just to Janek Schergen, set-designer Peter Cazalet (whose costumes were fabulous) and lighting supremo Suven Chan, but to the whole backstage team – and the only serious downside was an ingratiatingly-voiced announcer who  irritatingly ran over a whole list of sponsors and glibly interrupted our applause by promoting other shows and encouraging us to spend lots of money.  My daughter missed a real treat, but, hordes of teenage schoolgirls and Greek fathers notwithstanding, I had one of the most magical times I can remember for a very long year.

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