Kirov presents an ill-matched pair of star-crossed lovers

<i>Romeo and Juliet </i>| Royal Opera House
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The Independent Culture

Casual observers of the London ballet scene are puzzled, and understandably so. Following the heavily publicised arrival two months ago of Russia's Kirov Ballet and Orchestra - along with its sister opera company - it now appears that the St Petersburg ballet contingent has come back for another, in some ways identical season in the very same theatre. Only this time it's a commercial venture for the impresario Victor Hochhauser. It's in the Royal Opera House again for the simple reason that the Opera House was available and the Coliseum is not (it's closed for a makeover); and if the choice of ballets looks familiar, it's because that's what the Kirov offered and what Mr Hochhauser thought would sell. And he was right. No sooner were the posters up than stickers were being plastered over them squeezing in extra dates "owing to demand".

Casual observers of the London ballet scene are puzzled, and understandably so. Following the heavily publicised arrival two months ago of Russia's Kirov Ballet and Orchestra - along with its sister opera company - it now appears that the St Petersburg ballet contingent has come back for another, in some ways identical season in the very same theatre. Only this time it's a commercial venture for the impresario Victor Hochhauser. It's in the Royal Opera House again for the simple reason that the Opera House was available and the Coliseum is not (it's closed for a makeover); and if the choice of ballets looks familiar, it's because that's what the Kirov offered and what Mr Hochhauser thought would sell. And he was right. No sooner were the posters up than stickers were being plastered over them squeezing in extra dates "owing to demand".

At least the season led off with something different: Leonid Lavrovsky's historic 1940 staging of Romeo and Juliet. This is the production for which Prokofiev composed his celebrated score, although in the event it was pipped at the post by a Czech production which used the same music. Acquired by the Bolshoi Ballet, the Lavrovsky version took London by storm on the Bolshoi's debut visit in 1956 and it coloured all British productions that followed, including the one we know best: Kenneth MacMillan's for the Royal Ballet.

The cultural climate of 1940s Leningrad being emphatically not that of 1960s London, there is a marked contrast in feeling between the two. Lavrovsky's approach to dance drama never allows you to forget the formal framework of ballet. Even at the height of her inner turmoil, Juliet presents herself with feet in pert fifth position; mourners at the tomb arrange themselves in a perfect fan of arched backs and arms raised just so. That formality now seems stilted, a barrier to feeling rather than a conduit.

There has also opened up a gulf of theatrical taste that makes us cringe from certain stylistic elements in the Lavrovsky: fathers who scowl and shake their fists at every provocation; a cartoon babushka of a Nurse with a ludicrous rolling gait; superfluous comedy from a tiresome trio of Capulet servants who get their fingers trapped in a pot. Other stagy elements fare better: I enjoyed the dynamic reading of Tybalt, psychopathically straining towards violence as a trained dog sniffs out a truffle, and the formalised hysteria of Juliet's mother as she remains straddled over Tybalt's fresh corpse while it's carried away on a stretcher.

But the essential lure of any production has to be the leading couple, and here the Kirov fielded its biggest stars. Alas they are not a good match. Altynai Asylmuratova is tiny, dark and fluttering, tensely alert to every nuance of the developing tragedy; Igor Zelensky is big-boned, blond and, frankly, dumb. In the 19th-century classics his lack of facial animation can seem an advantage when there isn't much to do but stand about looking princely. As Romeo, however, it begins to look like dereliction of duty. When his best friend is murdered in front of him, he barely seems to register it. Only much later, as he races to the Capulet tomb, do you know that he's pulling out the stops because if you're sitting in the stalls you can actually hear him acting.

Asylmuratova, a 40-year-old with the body of an adolescent, is beautifully convincing as Juliet, her heart-faced prettiness underpinned by a flinty will that makes perfect sense of Juliet's filial defiance, and even carries her through the absurdity of dancing out her passionate feelings in the Friar's cell.

As I've said, rationalism has no place in this production. The attractive new designs by Pyotr Williams echo this too. The first-act backdrop shows a craggy Verona that looks more like Edinburgh Castle. The gorgeously starlit final scene means Juliet's corpse is left unguarded in the open air! And could the wardrobe department really not run to more than two frocks for Juliet? She appears to wear her nightie to the ball and a balldress in bed and, later, the same to the grave.

'Romeo and Juliet': Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7340 4000) 16 Aug

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