The greatest romantib ballet stirs audience

IMG_2457By Georgina Benison — The story of the beautiful and poignant ballet, “Giselle”, is based on a medieval folktale about the ‘Wilis’ or evil spirits of jilted women who dance men to death. In the 19th century French librettist Theophile Gautier with Vernoy de St. George wrote the story of an ill-fated peasant girl, Giselle, inspired by a passage from Heinrich Heine’s 1866 book ‘De l’Allemagne’ and Victor Hugo’s 1829 poem, ‘Fantomes’.
The music for Giselle was composed by Adolphe Adam (who also wrote the music for the ballet, ‘Le Corsaire’, which was performed in Muscat a year ago) and the world premiere took place in Paris in 1841, since when it has been continually performed and achieved the accolade as ‘the greatest romantic ballet’ in the repertoire.
The Royal Opera House Muscat presented 3 performances of the American Ballet Theatre’s sixth production at the weekend – each with different soloists and conductors. This production’s first public performance was given in California in 1987 with Vermont-born Kevin McKenzie as Albrecht – the acclaimed Principal Dancer who became the IMG_2576Artistic Director of the ABT in 1992 – who staged this production after the late 19th century Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg’s interpretation by the famous French ballet master and choreographer, Marius Petipa. So quite a legacy and tradition to live up to! The ABT production used scenery by the celebrated Milanese set- designer and Oscar-winner, Gianni Quaranta, and veteran costume designer, the distinguished Florentine Anna Anni. Both have collaborated extensively with Franco Zeffirelli and Placido Domingo.
The ballet is in two Acts, each quite distinct in mood, atmosphere, music and style. It opens in a quintessentially rustic setting, in the vineyard country bordering the Rhine. Villagers pass by to harvest grapes before the Wine Festival – a gift to any choreographer or costumier – as pastoral scenes melt into dance celebrations, a royal hunting party provides rural nobility, and Giselle is proclaimed Queen of the Festival. There is disguise and deception, and the ubiquitous love-triangle. The three performances had different casts, and for most Principals and soloists Muscat provided their debut. In Friday’s performance, Giselle, a beautiful peasant girl with a delicate constitution, was danced exquisitely by the Kansas-born Misty Copeland who presented an earthly innocence in her dancing. Opposite her was the inspiring Danish Principal Dancer, Alban Lendorf, as Count Albrecht disguised as Loys, a peasant neighbour.
IMG_3338In the middle of the festivities Skylar Brandt and Arron Scott performed the entertaining peasants’ ‘pas de deux’, a vehicle for light diversion to allow two soloists to take centre stage, and here they delighted the audience with some fine virtuoso dancing.
The triangle was completed by the brilliant Roman Zhurbin as honest Hilarion, the village huntsman and gamekeeper to the court, who secretly loves Giselle and suspects Loys’ true origins. Giselle’s mother Berthe was mimed superbly by Nancy Raffa, and Princess Bathilde – who was betrothed to Albrecht and the cause of Giselle’s downfall – was acted by Brittany de Grofft in a finely nuanced non-dancing role. Ms Copeland gave a compelling performance at the end of Act 1 as Giselle’s mind became unhinged, convincingly showing signs of lunacy as a woman distracted, in an Ophelia-like mad-scene, before dying literally of a broken heart.
The Prague Philharmonia provided the orchestral accompaniment under ABT’s Principal Conductor, Charles Barker, while on other nights Music Director Ormsby Wilkins led the orchestra in the pit. The score of Act 1 is rich with pastiche hunting calls for the brass section and light-hearted country dances and waltzes for the villagers.
Act 2 was another world, another place; the music was more of a continuous unfolding of lush Romantic chromatic harmonies, and the sets and lighting were sombre blue and foreboding throughout.
The ‘corps de ballet’ ladies exchanged their traditional peasant frocks for classical white dresses as the beautiful but terrible ‘wilis’, – restless spirits who have died with love unrequited – and an ethereal mystic atmosphere prevailed. Myrta, the Queen of the wilis was beautifully danced by Devon Teuscher on Friday, evoking memories of Margot Fonteyn’s skill and confidence in her classical roles of yester-year, while the Wilis themselves suggested angelic nymphs in a surreal dream rather than evil spirits! They are forever destined to roam the earth from midnight till dawn, vengefully trapping any male who enters their domain and forcing him to dance to his death, in an eerie balletic anticipation  of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. However, Giselle resolves to protect Albrecht, dancing with him until the clock strikes four when the wilis lose their power.
“Giselle” requires supreme artistry and great technical skill in the contrast between the Acts and extremely demanding roles. Ms Copeland displayed the versatility of a mature dancer as a wili, buoyant and almost weightless as if she represented air itself, while Mr Lendorf’s agility as a virtuoso dancer was apparent in his execution of light double-air spins, extremely light ‘jetés’ (jumps) and fluid, almost invisible ‘entrechats’ (leg-crossing in the air).
Despite the morbid, other-worldly conclusion of the ballet, Albrecht is rescued from death by the strength of Giselle’s love which reaches from beyond the grave. His destiny is secured by a bond which transcends social constraints and traditions, and with that thought the audience peeled out into a balmy Muscat night, uplifted by the cathartic effect of experiencing a world-class performance.