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Prokofiev’s Juliet’s Lives: Zora Šemberová

by Cassie, Publicity Assistant

Simon Morrison is Professor of Music at Princeton University. He is the author of The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years and the editor of Prokofiev and His World. He restored the original, uncensored version of Romeo and Juliet for the Mark Morris Dance Group, which enjoys its world premier in 2008. In this article, Morrison looks at the mysteries surrounding the 1938 premier of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, sharing what he’s learned about the woman who played Juliet, Zora Šemberová.

This May the Mark Morris Dance Group will be performing Romeo and Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare at Lincoln Center. This is the original, 1935 version of Sergey Prokofiev’s illustrious ballet, which I restored for the company last year, and which features, remarkably, a happy ending. (The tragic ending was tacked on to the score after protest from Soviet Shakespeare purists; had Prokofiev not complied with their demands, Romeo and Juliet might not have been performed during his lifetime.) I unearthed this version of the score while conducting research in Moscow for The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, and I devoted about twenty pages of the book to the peculiar history of the ballet. That history continues to be written, as I learned last spring, when Alan Brissenden, Reader in English at the University of Adelaide, informed me that the Czech ballerina who danced the part of Juliet in the 1938 premiere of the ballet was thriving at age 94. Her name is Zora Šemberová, and she has just published her memoirs, which are titled, appropriately enough, Na št’astné planetě, or On a Happy Planet.

The premiere occurred in the Provincial Theater in Brno, Czechoslovakia, on December 30, 1938. It was choreographed by Ivo Váña-Psota, who took the part of Romeo. Prokofiev wanted to attend the performance, but by the end of 1938 he was no longer allowed to travel outside of the Soviet Union. The Commissariat of Foreign Affairs declined to issue him a passport, with various reasons being invented to explain the official change in his status from vїyezdnoy (allowed to travel) to nevїyezdnoy (disallowed).

It remains unclear what, exactly, was performed at the theater in Brno. Most chroniclers of the ballet assume that the premiere was partial, involving highlights of the score taken primarily from the first and second orchestral suites, but the reviews are vague and the source materials presumably destroyed during the war. The date of the premiere leaves it uncertain as to whether or not the ballet included the happy or tragic ending, and whether or not the other dramaturgical oddities of the original scenario remained.

The oddities in the original ballet include episodes in which the drama between the Montague and Capulet factions is interrupted by processions of merry-makers intended to block the audience’s view of the action. (Imagine a square in Renaissance Verona masked by footage of a Soviet May Day parade.) Later, to alleviate the gloom of the scene in which Juliet drinks the “death” potion prepared for her by Friar Laurence, Prokofiev composed three exotic dances. These dances represent the nuptial gifts that Paris, convinced that he will succeed in marrying Juliet, has brought to her bedchamber. The entertainment fails to rouse Juliet from her toxin-induced slumber.

There follows the happy ending. Juliet lies in her bedchamber. Romeo enters, but he is unable, like Paris before him, to rouse Juliet; Romeo concludes that she has died and, grief-stricken, resolves to commit suicide. The arrival of Friar Laurence prevents him from pulling out his dagger, and the two of them engage in a brief struggle during a break in the music. Juliet begins to awaken; Romeo carries her away as the townspeople gather in celebration of the miracle. There follow two final dances, which, in the Mark Morris Dance Group production, take place in the stars.

None of this made it past the Soviet censors. The first Soviet production of the ballet in 1940 stripped the score of lightness and freshness and, to Prokofiev’s unhappiness, monumentalized the storyline. In her memoirs, Šemberová is vague about the staging in Brno, but she confirms that the ballet was shortened and that the choreography, out of respect for the modernist leanness of the 1935 score, avoided group dances and clichéd gestures. Šemberová did not dance on pointe, which afforded her greater dramatic flexibility. Two remarkable photographs sent to me by Alan offer a distant glimpse of her effort:

Along with these images, Alan also supplied a copy of the Brno program, which raises as many questions as it answers about the premiere and the six performances that followed it (Romeo and Juliet closed on May 5, 1939, a victim of the Nazi German occupation of Czechoslovakia). For one thing, the premiere featured a choral prologue and epilogue, even though Prokofiev composed no choral music. The singers evidently recited stanzas from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet play, framing and perhaps interrupting the dancing with meditations on love and fate. Here is Vera Tancibudek’s translation of the final lines of the scenario:

Desolate Romeo, convinced that Juliet is indeed dead, finishes his suffering by drinking poison. Juliet awakes, sees her beloved, and leaves the world that had begrudged them their love. Did their love have to die in order that the hatred between the Montagues and Capulets would also expire?

So the tragic ending is there, but abstracted, turned into a mournful question directed at Friar Laurence, who had mistakenly assumed that the marriage of Romeo and Juliet would transform the hostilities between the Montagues and Capulets into something approaching celestial harmony.

Beyond the chorus, the program also includes mention of the exotic dances. These dances were excised from the first Soviet production of the ballet, and from all productions since (excluding that by Mark Morris). The bizarre appearance in Act III of Middle Eastern maidens bearing emeralds, Moors with carpets, and pirates (!) with contraband goods could only have interrupted the dramatic flow. The music, however, is fabulous:

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The exotic dances have nothing to do with the happy or tragic ending of the ballet. They sound like a visitation from another work. They are also, however, a throwback to nineteenth-century ballet, which tended to feature oriental divertissements. In Prokofiev’s iconoclastic conception, what was old was new again.

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  1. [...] premier in 2008. Morrison previously blogged for us about the 1938 premier of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. In this article, Morrison looks at Prokofiev’s relationship to another Soviet [...]

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