With its passion, its poetry, its politics, and its profusion of richly drawn subsidiary characters, “Romeo and Juliet’’ is a natural for the dance stage. Couple Shakespeare’s play with Sergei Prokofiev’s acerbic, doom-drenched score and you would be hard pressed to find a better ballet. Certainly you would be challenged to find a better production than the one Boston Ballet opened at the Boston Opera House Thursday evening, where the stars were Misa Kuranaga’s feathery Juliet, Yury Yanowsky’s choleric Tybalt, and the Boston Ballet Orchestra.
Over the past 30 years, Boston Ballet has done versions of “Romeo and Juliet’’ by Choo San Goh (1984, 1986, 1989, 1993), Daniel Pelzig (1997), Rudi van Dantzig (2003), and John Cranko (2008), who is the choice again here. Eschewing the festive Renaissance colors that brighten most productions of this work, Cranko restricts himself to a muted costume palette of beiges and russets and pinks and pale blues. Susan Benson’s set is a great gray stone arcade that frames the marketplace and the Capulet ballroom and also serves as Juliet’s balcony, her bedroom (some suspension of disbelief required for that), and her tomb. The backdrops against which Juliet plays with her Nurse and visits Friar Lawrence are grisaille scrims; Friar Lawrence’s church is suggested by a couple of columns and a cross. It is as if the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets was eating away at Verona.
Crammed onto the stage (the 2008 performances were given at the larger Wang Theatre), the production has a cozy, sometimes crowded, feel that suits Cranko’s sense of community. The marketplace is a riot of carts and stalls and, in the second act, Gypsies and acrobatic carnival shenanigans. The town folk crowd eagerly around Romeo when the Nurse gives him Juliet’s letter; later they crowd protectively around Mercutio’s corpse.
Cranko’s choreography is pleasing rather than breathtaking, with limited opportunity for virtuoso display; only the marketplace folk dances and duels and Juliet’s candlelit funeral cortege seem to have fired his imagination. He has some novel ideas, like starting off the ballet with Rosaline, the girl Romeo thinks he’s in love with before he meets Juliet. But Cranko also has some strange notions. Romeo and Juliet exit together after their wedding (Juliet needs to go home with her Nurse). Romeo stabs himself instead of taking poison. Oddest of all, there’s no Montague-Capulet reconciliation at the end, just the dead lovers in the tomb. It’s a sobering conclusion.
Kuranaga’s Juliet would, however, elevate any production - she’s giddy, impulsive, detailed, butterfly light in movement without sacrificing emotional gravity. Despite her small stature, she achieves an elegantly long line in aerial extension. Nelson Madrigal, her Romeo on Thursday, was an ardent, adolescently awestruck swain with a bit of swagger; his dancing was limited in its bravura, but he was a good partner for her.
Yanowsky’s virile Tybalt stalked, glowered, confronted, and wielded a mean sword; his death took some of the energy out of the evening. Paulo Arrais brought clarity and amplitude to his Mercutio, and though he seemed earthbound at first, he dispelled that impression with a quicksilver series of tours à la seconde. Jeffrey Cirio was an antic Benvolio (he and Arrais were the Montague bad boys), Sabi Varga a courtly, considerate Paris, Tai Jimenez a no-nonsense Lady Capulet, and Elizabeth Olds a girlish, undoddering Nurse.
Few ballets are as dependent on the performance of the orchestra as “Romeo and Juliet.’’ In part that’s because the score is so literally descriptive. The Boston Ballet Orchestra under music director Jonathan McPhee has had the measure of it for some time now. This is raw, swashbuckling Prokofiev, big and bold (no stinting on tuba, contrabassoon, or snare drum), by turns dramatic and delicate, snickering and sincere, with individual textures and colors well distinguished. It made the dancing seem that much better.