Review: Royal Ballet - Giselle - Royal Opera House

Performance: In rep 18 January - 10 February 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 20 January 2014

Performance reviewed: 18 January 2014 (matinee)

If there is an optimal time to have a great moment in your life then 2pm on a grey Saturday afternoon in these yawning days of mid-January would be a doubtful opportunity. Debuting in the greatest Romantic ballet of them all is a crucial milestone to be savoured in any dancer’s career but one feels this inauguration should only happen in the glittering spectacle of an opening night. But, here, instead of the audience arriving in sartorial splendour, walking the red carpet into a candle-lit velvet foyer, many of us had braved the multiple line closures of a transport network bedevilled by the weekend’s ubiquitous “engineering works”, then caught in cold drizzle to arrive damp and flustered. Not so much the potential entree to a champagne and caviar occasion, more the unwanted preparations for cold tea and soggy toast.

But……….great ballet can transcend these small inconsequentialities of reality. Everyday lives are put on hold as the hypnotic impact of the art exerts its manipulative effect on the collective consciousness of an audience. It happens less often with those of us more regularly exposed to the potential source of this magic but ballet still retains the alchemical power to transfix belief. And so it was that this particular grey day was conjured into the sparkling celebration of a New Year’s Eve.

I’m often asked why I see so many performances of the same ballet and it is indelible performances like this one that provide the answer. Here was a mature production, freshly spring cleaned and renovated, enjoying the honeyed, rich patina built up from layers of experience in a company that has performed Giselle more than 550 times, buffed up by new interpretations developed from the bold enquiry of dancers delivering roles for the very first time. There is a special inspirational space between these pillars of tradition and innovation out of which great performances are mined.

The main debut in this cast was Steven McRae’s inaugural reading of Albrecht, the Rhineland nobleman who enjoys roughing it with a commoner alter-ego, in which guise he has seduced Giselle, the beautiful young girl who lives in the neighbouring village. But, back in his real world, Albrecht is to be married to the icy Bathilde and he is playing with fire, since the whole regional aristocracy have arrived to celebrate the betrothal party. All is undone when these two worlds collide and Albrecht’s duplicity is exposed by Hilarion, a local forester also in love with Giselle. The discovery is too much for the poor girl who concludes Act I with the iconic mad dance that ends with her suicide.

The key is to believe in these characters. Albrecht is the cad whose lie drives Giselle to her death but we have to feel that he loves her genuinely and with all his heart; that he does so, depends upon Bathilde being cold and haughty; and audiences need to see that Hilarion has a nasty, vengeful streak so that he is not the cuckolded boy with whom we sympathise. McRae’s performance was nuanced with exceptional subtlety. He avoided the temptation to appear heroic, instead here was a guy carried along by the unexpected tidal wave of falling in love. In the title role, Roberta Marquez catches the joyful vulnerability of the heroine with heart-rending simplicity. The opening episode of their romantic meeting outside Giselle’s cottage was touchingly portrayed. As Bathilde, Sian Murphy was as frozen as Siberian tundra and Johannes Stepanek injected enough sullen arrogance into Hilarion to appear like Gaston, the muscle-bound village brute in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Completing the impressive supporting cast was Kristen McNally as Giselle’s ultra-cautious mother, Berthe. Her mime foretelling the events of Act II was strong and clear.

The centuries-old popularity of Giselle lies in the distinction between the daytime reality of the first Act and it’s essential divisions between the villagers and the nobility (brilliantly imaged here when both sets of players occupy different sides of the stage in Giselle’s death scene); and the otherworldliness of the forest at night with it’s partition between the ghosts of jilted brides (known as the Wilis) and the men who have dared to invade their space after midnight. As a suicide, Giselle has been buried in unhallowed ground and the two men who loved her have come separately for a midnight vigil at her grave. Berthe’s mime warned that any man caught by the Wilis would be forced to dance until they died from exhaustion, which is the fate that befalls the hapless Hilarion. But, the spirit of Giselle protects Albrecht long enough for him to survive until the bells that signify dawn.

In this second act, three exceptional elements coalesced with perfect symmetry. The corps de ballet were utterly convincing as the ethereal and enchanting tribe of Wilis. They moved with a lightness and uniformity – especially in the difficult sequence of hops on arabesque – that convinced us that these were very different beings from the flesh-and-blood peasant girls of Act I. Their Queen, Myrtha, was played by another debutant, Claudia Dean, who gave an emotionless performance of frozen steel with such imperious command that when ordering the Wilis to appear, it felt as if she was physically pulling their spirits from the ground. And, last but not least, there is the touching reunion of Albrecht and Giselle. McRae and Marquez absorbed the imagery of their altered states into the very soul of their dancing. Their iconic, central pas de deux was captivating and enabled so many diverse emotions to be observed. When McRae was forced to dance by the Wilis one could feel both his exhaustion and the gentle forgiveness of Giselle’s spirit enveloping him within her protection.

The pantheons of British ballet are easily listed. De Valois, Ashton and MacMillan would probably top anyone’s list but Sir Peter Wright’s productions of the classic ballets are just as much a vital part of the formation of the art in Britain. His seminal interpretation of Giselle, beautifully dressed in John McFarlane’s wonderful – and recently retouched – set designs, has been part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire for almost 30 years. It is a wonderful production and, on this most inauspicious of afternoons, it was honoured by a first-class performance in every respect.

Continues in rep on 20 , 22, 23, 25, 27, 30 January & 1, 6 & 10 February.
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The performance on Monday 27 January, with Carlos Acosta and Natalia Osipova dancing in the lead roles, will be broadcast live to cinemas
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More on Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui:

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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.

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