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The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet - Shakespeare’s great romantic play - has inspired composers, opera producers, and ballet directors for centuries. Here is a selection of some of the greatest musical versions.
When Prokofiev first presented his music to the Bolshoi Ballet, they claimed it was ‘undanceable’. Suites of the music were heard in Moscow and the U.S.A. before the full ballet premiered in Czechoslovakia in 1938. Its popular 'Dance of the Knights' is used as the theme for TV's 'The Apprentice'. Pictured are Tamara Rojo and Roberto Bolle in a 1998 Royal Albert Hall production.
The warring Montagues and Capulets became New York street gangs – the Sharks and the Jets – in Bernstein’s revolutionary musical. Puerto Rican Maria and American Tony even got their own balcony scene and some of the most brilliant songs written in the 20th century.
Tchaikovsky was deeply inspired by Shakespeare and also wrote works based on 'The Tempest' and 'Hamlet'. Although styled an 'Overture-Fantasy', the overall design is a symphonic poem. After an unpromising start, the piece is now one of Tchaikovsky's most enduringly popular. Its love theme has been used in countless films and TV shows.
Benda’s opera was based upon a German translation of Shakespeare's play. While Benda eliminates many of the play’s characters, he makes Julie the strongest and most important character in the opera. He also gives the opera a happy ending. It was not staged in the UK until 2007.
Notable for its four duets for the main characters, this opera was a huge success for Gounod. It was soon parodied at the Théâtre Déjazet, as 'Rhum et eau en juillet' - 'Rum and Water in July'. The opera was first seen in London in July 1867 and remains a popular work in the repertoire. Pictured is the 2011 Opera Company of Philadelphia production.
Bellini had only a month and a half to write his version for the 1830 Carnival season at La Fenice in Venice. He managed the task by borrowing ten numbers he had previously written for an unsuccessful opera, 'Zaira'. ‘I Capuleti’ was revived at Catania in 1935, the centenary of Bellini’s death, and given its first US performance in 1937.
One of Berlioz’s finest and most original works was inspired by an 1827 Paris performance he attended of 'Romeo and Juliet' (pictured) which starred his beloved Harriet Smithson. The eventual composition was made possible by a generous gift from Paganini. After hearing a performance of Berlioz's ‘Harold en Italie,’ the great violinist knelt before the composer and hailed him as the heir of Beethoven.
The most enduring aspect of Franco Zeffirelli's sumptuous production has been Rota's love theme, used daily on British radio for Simon Bates' 'Our Tune'. An operatic vocal version has even been performed by the likes of Luciano Pavarotti.
Zingarelli’s Italian opera premiered at La Scala, Milan in January 1796. The composer wrote it in just eight days but it is considered to be his best work. It remained a popular part of the Italian repertory well into the 19th century, the role of Giulietta being a favourite of legendary mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann's updated version retains the original Shakespearean dialogue, but with the Montagues and the Capulets represented as warring business empires brandishing guns instead of swords. Craig Armstrong's haunting Balcony Scene piano music has become a Classic FM favourite.
Another Italian opera version was Vaccai's last major operatic success, although he went on to write another nine. In an 1832 performance of Bellini's 'I Capuleti e i Montecchi' in Bologna, the penultimate scene of Vaccai's opera was substituted for the last act of the Bellini opera. This was done at the request of the mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, and became common practice during the remainder of the 19th century.
The ballet pioneer was only 20 when he became the first English composer to have a work taken up by Diaghilev. His ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was premiered by the Russian master in Monte Carlo. The story presents scenes from Shakespeare’s play acted out within the context of rehearsals for a ballet of the story.
Soviet composer Kabalevsky emulated his fellow countrymen Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky in writing music based on Shakespeare's play. His was for a production at Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre. The colourful, 10 movement suite follows the action of the tragedy and sounds more like a ballet score, although it was not intended as such.