That Marianela Núñez is one of this generation’s pre-eminent ballerinas is beyond any doubt. Conjure a memory of her in action and it is highly likely that the mental image will be of her dancing Giselle or Odette; or, for the more adventurous, perhaps in George Balanchine’s Diamonds. After joining The Royal Ballet in 1998, it was ten years before Núñez debuted as Juliet and during her long career as a principal at Covent Garden (19 years and counting) opening nights in this role have tended to be taken by others (Tamara Rojo, Alina Cojocaru, Natalia Osipova or Francesca Hayward). Juliet has never been an obvious pièce de résistance for Núñez. That is, until now.

Federico Bonelli (Romeo) and Marianela Núñez (Juliet)
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

The Argentinian ballerina did not open the first run of Romeo and Juliet at the beginning of this season (that honour went to Hayward) and she was not supposed to be first cast for this second run but due to the indisposition of Osipova (who is scheduled to return to the role at the end of January) Núñez was elevated to this opening night cast at short notice. And, she delivered a performance of extraordinary versatility. In a short preview a few nights earlier, BBC News described this as a “brand new production”, which seemed a stretch given that The Royal Ballet has been performing Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet since 1965. However, perhaps the “Beeb” had a premonition of Núñez’ performance because her interpretation of Juliet made the whole production appear refreshed: a makeover on the face of a much-loved friend.

Juliet’s journey is an elastic artistic endeavour, living a lifetime in less than four days: from the excited child playing with her doll; the nervous but dutiful adolescent acquiescing to the parental pressure to accept the courtship of Paris; the thunderbolt of instantaneous attraction; the burgeoning sensuality of her love for Romeo; the Machiavellian machinations of a determined woman; to that heartbreaking finale. Each scene requires an entirely different approach and Núñez achieved and sustained these transitions with a heady mix of sincerity and sensitivity.

Her creation of Juliet seemed to come from within, channelling honest emotion rather than artifice, and I might suggest that this new approach has much to do with the recent engagement of Alessandra Ferri to the coaching team at The Royal Ballet. I suspect that one of the great Juliets of our time has transferred her knowledge and understanding of the role onto another and it has had the effect of opening yet another door in Núñez’ already glittering career. It’s not just in the richness of performance but also the contrasting imagery (even to include hair and make-up) in the different stages of Juliet’s journey from child-to wife-to widow in less than half a week.

The many cast changes necessitated a front-of-curtain explanation by the company’s director, Kevin O’Hare, and when Núñez came running on to begin the second scene, she looked so unfamiliar it seemed that there had been another uncredited cast change and who was this new juvenile dancer! Here is a triumphant artist in her prime and when recalling her great performances in years to come, this will surely be a night to remember.

There was no mix-and-match in the Covid reshuffling and Núñez was able to take the opening night with her intended partner, Federico Bonelli, and he brought that wealth of over 20 years’ experience to inform a strong presence as Romeo, a firebrand who is tamed by love but still able to boil over and avenge his best friend’s murder. Bonelli’s speed of turn and height of leap are still audacious although some lifts seemed a struggle.

If Núñez exemplified the narrative quality for which The Royal Ballet is rightly revered then she was well matched by others, not least by Gary Avis bringing a richness of mime and gesture to a domineering Lord Capulet. Throughout the cast, vivid portraits were engraved into familiar characters, such that novel nuances were evident, from the entitled thuggery of Ryoichi Hirano’s Tybalt to the fluttering skittishness of Kristen McNally’s Nurse. Marcelino Sambé has made the role of the devil-may-care Mercutio his own in an interpretation that is a hard act to follow.

It seemed most appropriate to have the rare experience of the orchestra being directed by a woman and Alondra de la Parra conducted with a full-on, almost hypnotic, passion as exemplified by her own energetic upper-body movement on the podium. It was a magisterial account of Prokofiev’s descriptive and arresting score, and even the mandolins played along as a team in harmony.

This was an evening that rightly belonged to La Núñez and I suspect that her new-found versatility in this most important role will have meant the world to her. After all, her beloved cat’s name is not Albrecht, nor Siegfried, but Romeo!