Giselle – Romantic ballet in two acts
Giselle – Natalia Osipova
Albrecht – Reece Clarke
Hilarion – Lukas B. Brændsrød
Wilfred – Tomas Mock
Berthe – Elizabeth McGorian
The Duke of Courland – Christopher Saunders
Bathilde – Christina Arestis
Leader of the Hunt – Kevin Emerton
Pas de Six – Yuhui Choe, Luca Acri, Isabella Gasparini, Leo Dixon, Ashley Dean, Joseph Sissens
Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis – Mayara Magri
Moyna – Claire Calvert
Zulme – Melissa Hamilton
Peasants, Courtiers and Wilis – Artists of The Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Choreography – Marius Petipa
Original Choreography – Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot
Music – Adolphe Adam [Ed. by Lars Payne]
Designer – John Macfarlane
Original Lighting – Jennifer Tipton re-created by David Finn
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 4 November, 2021
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
It was in 1985 that Peter Wright premiered his production of that old favourite Giselle at Covent Garden; thirty-six years on, it is still going strong, a worthy setting for the talents of the company and it has seen exceptional performances by remarkable artists who have explored the depths and nuances of this ever-fresh tale of love, betrayal and redemption; in this revival, The Royal Ballet’s current roster of dancers seek to do the same. Director Kevin O’Hare continues his policy of bringing forward younger performers in roles which, in some cases, have been the preserve of some for many years; it certainly will do wonders for the artistic development of those lucky enough to benefit, but, as in Romeo and Juliet, some characterisations are ‘light’ and do not necessarily cross the footlights to the audience. The revival is, nonetheless, a strong one, and benefits from some promising casting throughout its run.
The ensemble is without doubt in fine fettle at present; nowhere was this shown more than in the work of the corps de ballet, as assorted peasantry in Act One, as the wraith wilis in Act Two – certainly, it has been some time since the dances of the latter have been delivered with such homogeneity of movement and shared musicality. In fact, the second act, set in John Macfarlane’s atmospherically ailing wood, is when this performance of Giselle finally came together after a first act which, despite some fine dancing, failed to convince as a whole. In truth, the human world with its detailed narrative which must, somehow, dovetail with the dancing, is always the more difficult to bring off; the spiritual plane is more coherent to portray and, once one accepts its existence, speaks largely for itself. It was in Act One, therefore, that the ‘joins’ in this ballet were to be seen with often fine performances somehow adrift from each other; I was unconvinced of the veracity of the relationships we saw and reminded constantly that we were watching a ballet rather than witnessing the tragedy of a girl called Giselle.
In the title role on this opening night was Natalia Osipova, whose appearances as Giselle when she first joined the company were revelatory; she did not create a similar effect on this occasion. Her first act was characterised by a nervous, nervy quality, the characterisation overladen with naturalistic gesture and reactions which took the part away from its Romantic concept; Osipova over-emphasised the physical weakness of Giselle’s heart but was then over-hearty in her movements. Her technique remains strong, although she betrayed considerable tension in her quivering fingers and she plays somewhat fast and loose with some of her mime, which robs the narrative of clarity at crucial moments – the memory of counting the flower petals during her Act One madness was simply fudged. The mad scene is notoriously difficult to bring off, and while many Giselles find success in portraying her as beginning to move towards the spirit world, Osipova chooses to focus on all-too-human mental disorder, leading to rather too much ‘business’. In Act Two, she remains impressive, although the transcendent quality she brought to her performances a few years ago was noticeably absent. It is an interesting conceit to have evocations of her corporeal self inflect her movements as a spirit but that goes against the underlying Romanticism of the ballet itself – often pre-echoes of Giselle as a wraith can be detected in her as a living being.
First Soloist Reece Clarke certainly looks every inch an aristocratic Albrecht, although his Act One characterisation was short on detail and long on the cliché of the ‘ballet prince’. As a result, it was difficult to read what kind of Albrecht he was portraying, the callous nobleman toying with a peasant girl or a man motivated by genuine love, which made his interactions with Osipova’s Giselle unconvincing. Act Two saw Clarke improve immeasurably, even if his interpretation remains on the cool side. He was able to impress with his dancing, unfurling his long limbs into movements of considerable beauty, displaying a beautiful line in arabesque and executing seemingly endless entrechats six as he is ‘danced to death’ by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. His partnering of Osipova was strong and unobtrusive even if it is not quite yet as seamless as that of some.
Mayara Magri certainly has all the technical strength for the Queen with a large, powerful jump and strong leg and footwork, but the character of the implacable revenger of betrayed women did not come over; the icy quality was absent, her malevolent power undetectable, which made her presence at the side of the stage throughout seem superfluous. As Hilarion, Lukas B. Brændsrød cut an impressive physical presence and, with his rough manners, contrasted pleasingly with Clarke’s aristocrat, but his love for Giselle in Act One was sketchily conveyed. In Act Two, he showed that casting a younger artist than usual in the role has its advantages with confident and successful execution of the choreography preceding his destruction by the wilis. The Act One Pas de Six revealed each dancer approaching his/her choreography in a slightly different ways, with Ashley Dean just taking the honours with precise and inflected footwork and a pliant torso. Indeed, a stiffness in the back is something which seems to be creeping into the movements of some of the female soloists, from Osipova herself down, which is neither in the company tradition nor the best way to make the most of the choreography. Special mention to Christina Arestis’s haughty Bathilde, Albrecht’s noble betrothed – she gave an abject lesson in how to create and convey character with the smallest of gestures and the subtlest of looks.
Despite its popularity and frequent revival, Giselle is a tricky ballet to bring off both in terms of dancing and characterisation; somehow the two worlds of life and death must be linked through the title role. Natalia Osipova is a great interpreter of the part even if on this occasion some of her experiments did not quite work and The Royal Ballet possesses as fine a production as any, which it performs both with confidence and not a little style.