Review: Royal Ballet - Giselle - Royal Opera House

Performance: 26 February - 15 April 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 1 March 2016

Royal Ballet - 'Giselle' - Sarah Lamb. Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH.

Performance reviewed: 26 February

The eponymous heroine of Giselle is a gentle and fragile peasant girl and so it’s a sad irony that the perennial vulnerability of a dancer’s body, incessantly pushed to the limit, day after day, should have led to the late withdrawal of Natalia Osipova from performing this role: one that won her two National Dance Awards in 2014.

Sarah Lamb stepped into the breach to add to her sole scheduled performance (with Ryoichi Hirano, on 28 March) and since she is a ballerina who deserves more opportunities for opening night performances, our potential loss in missing Osipova became a satisfying gain in the alabaster frailty of Lamb’s charming performance. For me, Lamb exudes an aura of East Coast elegance; a “Grace Kelly” in ballet. She is blonde, beautiful and from the right side of America (though Boston, not Philadelphia) so it’s not a fanciful allusion. Many of the great ballerina roles require significant character shifts across more than one act and Lamb once again demonstrates great skill as a malleable actress in an interpretation of Giselle that is initially driven by dignity and helplessness (a victim of her circumstances) and then, in Act II, by courage and determination (when her character sets out to control the action, against all the odds).

For those unfamiliar with the plot of ballet’s most enduring tale from the great Romantic era of the early nineteenth century, Giselle is deceived by a philandering aristocrat, Count Albrecht (masquerading as a peasant boy); and she dies a dramatic death when her lover’s real identity and his duplicity are revealed. In the first act, her nervous mother has told a prescient tale – in mime, delivered here with superb clarity and animation by Kristen McNally – about the Wilis, ghosts of jilted brides who haunt the local woods and force young men to dance themselves to death. Giselle joins this peculiar tribe of The Dancing Dead but rebels against them to save Albrecht when the Wilis – having already disposed of Hilarion, whose desire for Giselle had set in train the undoing of his rival – turn their vengeful attention on the sorrowful Albrecht; during his nocturnal visit to Giselle’s woodland grave. It’s the Romantic ideal of love surviving death even if the guy was a bit of a cad!

Sir Peter Wright’s production was the first ballet that I saw after the renovation of The Royal Opera House at the turn of the century. It had been going for fifteen years’ prior to that but it remains as fresh as ever, especially since John Macfarlane’s backdrop in Act II was given a makeover when the ballet was revived in 2011. Now, the first ghostly images of Wilis, fleetingly seen at the opening of the second act, are remarkably ethereal, setting the scene so perfectly for what is to come. Wright has made fifteen productions of Giselle around the world and this Royal Ballet staging came 20 years’ after the first (for Stuttgart Ballet, in 1966). Today, it remains a quintessential, defining, thoughtful interpretation of a story that is ubiquitous in the ballet world.

In addition to the enforced change in the title role, this opening night provided a balance of experience and new interpretations throughout the cast. Having rehearsed for his debut with a different partner, Matthew Golding brought some fresh new brushstrokes to the usual interpretation of Albrecht. He started nervously, even fluffing a cue or two, and seemed ill-at-ease with some of the character’s standing around in Act I (always a difficult and under-rated part of a ballet dancer’s art) but his was a performance that steadily improved into a coruscating final pas de deux with Lamb.

The cast was enlivened by the mature interpretations of a number of long-standing company stalwarts: Thomas Whitehead and Johannes Stepanek brought believable and realistic touches, respectively, to the roles of the jealous Hilarion and Albrecht’s faithful squire; Christina Arestis combined unapproachable nobility with aristocratic largesse as Bathilde (Albrecht’s betrothed).

Elsewhere, a newer generation thrived as the lead Wilis: Tierney Heap was suitably cold and imperious as Myrtha, their Queen, while maintaining the strength of her technique in ultra-difficult step and jump combinations (her footwork, including the long backward diagonal of pas de bourrées, was never short of exquisite); and, as her attendants, Olivia Cowley and Beatriz Stix-Brunell were equally enchanting. The well-drilled strength of the corps de ballet as the 24 other ghostly brides was also of the highest order.

Stardom is such that I daresay many came only to see Osipova. I hope that any initial disappointment at her enforced absence will have been quickly subsumed into delight at the overall strength of the company at another stellar opening of this attractive signature production.

For a company that started way back in August, this year’s mid-season break (which occurred two days after this opening night) has come so late in the year that the freshness in this performance – from dancers who have barely had a break in more than six months – is all the more remarkable. By the way, when they return, it seems hopeful that Osipova will make her two other scheduled shows (on 17 and 29 March) and also look out for Vadim Muntagirov’s *debut in this production (partnering *Marianela Nuñez) on 22 March (plus 31 March and 6 April, screened live in cinemas). There are five other great casts to savour throughout March and early April. Take your pick, because it’s the production that is the real star.

Continues in rep until 15 April 2016
Full details & casting:

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH

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