To see Vadim Muntagirov is reward enough; to have Natalia Osipova as his Juliet is cause for jubilation. In was in this fervour that I too entreated well-placed friends to find me a ticket - and find they did - only to have her injured (a broken foot of sorts, if the grapevine informs correctly) and to have Sarah Lamb to step into the breach.
Audiences may quibble back and forth as to the qualities of the Royal Ballet's principal roster; but having seen the two paired with sublime results in last year's Manon, I embraced the replacement cast with keen anticipation.
To start with the obvious. Vadim Muntagirov is, unequivocally, a spectacularly convincing Romeo - that long enchanting, long abused character whose foppish and wavering tendencies so oft pose a terrible challenge. Muntagirov's interpretation is deceptively simple; one may think the sheer classicism of his lines, long extolled, can convey all worldly ardour without much concerted effort. From my perch in the stalls circle, close enough to see every facial shift, I witnessed the supreme commitment and inimitable devotion that Muntagirov emitted from every detail. On his refined limbs, Romeo assumed an earthy realism. Muntagirov has the immense and rare ability to emote as a boy; we watched no ballet, no masque, but the progress to love and despair of a very real youth. Act I, for Romeo, is a fiend - yet no exertion was betrayed. Starting from boyish rapport with Mercutio and Benvolio, this Romeo's movements contained a yearning and hope. Both his solo variations were dispatched with the utmost ease - and upon spying Juliet, any awareness of the audience seemed to vanish as love unfurled, his ever attitude declaring: youth eternal - youth triumphant! Upon wandering the Paul Hamlyn hall in search of acquaintances during the first interval, I heard the wonderfully perceptive comment; "The whole audience are dancing with him, aren't they?" Reader, such was the convincing quality of his spell that I felt the statement deeply.
Aesthetically, Lamb is slight and girlish, enabling her to skitter along the stage in her first appearance in a manner most convincing of a young maiden. My past experiences with this dancer has conveyed the importance of her partner; with a natural poise that is sometimes perceived as slightly cold or unemotive, with the right partner, she blooms quite decadently. Muntagirov is such a catalyst, as is to be expected; Lamb is feminine and dreamy, not ardent and impulsive. It is natural that she would respond most becomingly in the arms of a Romeo embodying sincerity above all else. As evident in the stupendous balcony pas de deux, there can be no pairing in this run sweeter and as flush with first love as these two. 'Enraptured' is a term that ought not be used lightly - yet only upon the curtain's descending over the first Act did the audience seem to simultaneously, incandescently, exhale.
Lamb individually has also grown exponentially. Her rejection of Nicol Edmond's Paris saw her come into her own; assertive, emotive and lined with a piercing quality I had not known her capable of. As she sat on the edge of her childhood bed, open and vulnerable to the world, sailing on the wings of the gritty Tchaikovsky score with an achingly potent combination of newfound steel and timidity that even Osipova cannot exude, we thought wildly of Juliet in that moment - here is a girl on the edge of something tremendous!
Alas, it was only at the final tableau that the dreaded question that had thereto been impressively suppressed - what would Osipova have done? - bubbled to the fore. Such musings are inevitable in an audience so closely tied to the Russian's interests. The tragedy in the crypt wept for a sudden rush of impetuosity and blind grief that beckons the sacrifice of life. It was not to be. Lamb's outstanding feature is her sweetness and Muntagirov is a creature of day - the peculiar flush of adult sorrow lies further ahead this superlative artist's career, in the same way that he overflows with languid idealism as Lensky but should not yet attempt the complex Onegin. He is a prince amongst fairytales who has still more to learn of the human psychology. Romeo may have died in the tomb, but he died kindly, unobtrusively. It was the first and only sense in the entire performance that they were playing parts; thus, it stood out disconcertingly. Lamb too shunned wild outpourings of grief - but neither was her internalised resolution entirely convincing. That famous scream, when Juliet holds the still warm Romeo in her young arms, became a short broken cry and when she plunged the dagger into her abdomen, it was done with all the politeness of a schoolgirl - you wondered, in that moment, how such a docile creature could have been swept up in a tale of unshakeable passion. With the right nuance, perhaps within their next two performances, it may make for an evocative interpretation built on the same lines of youth - the purity of their enacted end embodying adolescents consumed and defeated by all too adult emotions - and indeed, their potential is bountiful. In spite of imperfections, the lasting impression of Lamb and Muntagirov is crystalline and unadulterated; a beauty so simple it almost appears unadorned but is in fact, in the lasting memory, the most heartfelt and tremendously moving kind.
Across the company, there were equally engrossing performances. The Royal Ballet were deprived of Valentino Zucchetti's services for a large part of the previous season, and his return as Mercutio made that absence felt. Charming and dapper, thankfully without wandering too far into 'cheeky chappie' territory as most Mercutios are wont to do, he together with Hay were the fleetest and ablest of companions. Nimble and quick-footed, their sly disruptions to the Capulets were delightful to behold. Where Muntagirov excels in languor and finesse, Zucchetti ensures the trio remain tied to the heart of the company within the crowded marketplace scenes and his death at the hands of Tybalt was painful to watch in its excellent execution of human bravado and desperation.
Encompassing it all is the synergy between the company and Macmillan's most lauded creation. Though ostensibly remembered for its star-crossed lovers, Romeo & Juliet, in any medium, conveys profound messages of power and dignity. Upon this, we feasted royally; the haughtiness of the Capulet's masque, Christopher Saunders' prowling walk, Thiago Soares' mercurial Tybalt adding the effrontery so needed as the foil to the lovers' aching tenderness and the harlots' glee all served one purpose. It exemplified where the Royal Ballet most excel - not as mythical dryads, shades or even mindlessly jolly village folk. It is the study of human interaction, principally pride, that lends the production its appropriate gravitas, underscored by a Prokofiev orchestration that abandons lyricism for structure. In this, the company remains unrivalled.