Based on a synopsis created by Adrian Piotrovsky (who first suggested the subject to Prokofiev)and Sergey Radlov, the ballet was composed by Prokofiev in September 1935 to their scenario which followed the precepts of “drambalet” (dramatised ballet, officially promoted at the Kirov Ballet to replace works based primarily on choreographic display and innovation). Following Radlov’s acrimonious resignation from the Kirov in June 1934, a new agreement was signed with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on the understanding that Piotrovsky would remain involved.
However, the ballet’s original happy ending (contrary to Shakespeare) provoked controversy among Soviet cultural officials. The ballet’s production was then postponed indefinitely when the staff of the Bolshoi was overhauled at the behest of the chairman of the Committee on Arts Affairs, Platon Kerzhentsev.The ballet’s failure to be produced within Soviet Russia until 1940 may also have been due to the increased fear and caution in the musical and theatrical community in the aftermath of the two notorious Pravda editorials criticising Shostakovich and other “degenerate modernists” including Piotrovsky. The conductor Yuri Fayermet with Prokofiev frequently during the writing of the music, and he strongly urged the composer to revert to the traditional ending. Fayer went on to conduct the first performance of the ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre.
Suites of the ballet music were heard in Moscow and the United States, but the full ballet premiered in the Mahen Theatre, Brno (then in Czechoslovakia, now in the Czech Republic), on 30 December 1938. This version was a single-act production with music mainly from the first two suites. Prokofiev was not able to attend the premiere due to his status of outbound restriction.
It is better known today from the significantly revised version that was first presented at the Kirov Theatre(now Mariinsky Theatre) in Leningradon 11 January 1940, with choreography by Leonid Lavrovskyand with Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeyev in the leading roles. Despite the objections of Prokofiev, Lavrovsky significantly changed the score of the ballet. This production received international acclaim and was awarded the Stalin Prize.
In 1955, Mosfilm made the film version of this production with Galina Ulanova as Juliet and Yuri Zhdanov as Romeo. This film won the Best Lyrical Film and nominated as Palme d’Or in the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.
In 1955, Frederick Ashtonchoreographed a production of Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Danish Ballet.
In 1962, John Cranko‘s choreography of Romeo and Juliet for the Stuttgart Ballet helped the company achieve a worldwide reputation. It had its American premiere in 1969.
In 1965, choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s version for the Royal Ballet premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev danced the title roles. Fonteyn, considered to be near retirement, embarked upon a rejuvenated career with a partnership with Nureyev. Also in 1965, Oleg Vinogradov stages a version in Russia while serving as assistant ballet master to Pyotr Gusev.
In 1971, John Neumeier, partly inspired by John Cranko, created another version of the ballet in Frankfurt. In 1974, Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet premiered in Hamburg as his first full-length ballet with the company.
In 1977, Rudolf Nureyev created a new version of Romeo and Juliet for the London Festival Ballet, today’s English National Ballet. He performed the lead role of Romeo with British ballerina Patricia Ruanne creating the role of Juliet. As a partnership, they toured the production internationally, and it continues to be a popular ballet in the ENB repertoire, with its most recent revival in 2010 staged by Patricia Ruanne and Frederic Jahn of the original 1977 cast. This production was also staged by La Scala Theater Ballet in 1980 and Paris Opera Balletin 1984 and has been a renowned performance in the POB repertoire.
In 1979, Yuri Grigorovich created a new version for the Bolshoi, “which did away with most of the stage properties and stylized the action into an all-danced text.” This was revived in 2010 and remains in the Bolshoi repertory.
In 1985, choreographer László Seregi‘s production premiered at the Hungarian National Ballet, Budapest.
In 1996, choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot premiered his version of Roméo et Juliette at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Taking formal inspiration from the episodic character of Sergei Prokofiev’s classic score, Maillot structured the action in a manner akin to cinematic narrative. Rather than focusing on themes of political-social opposition between the two feuding clans, this Romeo and Juliet highlights the dualities and ambiguities of adolescence.
In 2007, Peter Martins made Romeo + Juliet on New York City Ballet to the Prokofiev music.
In 2008, Krzysztof Pastor presented his version by the Scottish Ballet at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. The Polish premiere of this version was by the Polish National Ballet in Warsaw, and the United States premiere was by the Joffrey Ballet in 2014.
On July 4, 2008, with the approval of the Prokofiev family and permission from the Russian State Archive, the original Prokofiev score was given its world premiere. Musicologist Simon Morrison, author of The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, unearthed the original materials in the Moscow archives, obtained permissions, and reconstructed the entire score. Mark Morris created the choreography for the production. The Mark Morris Dance Group premiered the work at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in New York state. The production subsequently began a year-long tour to include Berkeley, Norfolk, London, New York, and Chicago.
In 2011, the National Ballet of Canadapremiered a new choreography of Romeo and Juliet by Alexei Ratmanskyin Toronto, with plans to take it on tour in Western Canada in early 2012.
In addition to a somewhat standard instrumentation, the ballet also requires the use of the tenor saxophone. This voice adds a unique sound to the orchestra as it is used both in solo and as part of the ensemble. Prokofiev also used the cornet, viola d’amore and mandolins in the ballet, adding an Italianate flavor to the music.
Full instrumentation is as follows: