Choreography Marius Petipa, Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, David Bintley, music Adolphe Adam
Birmingham Royal Ballet
David Bintley retired as artistic director in July and Birmingham Royal Ballet awaits the coming of the new AD, Carlos Acosta, in January 2020: their autumn season is a holding or a ‘bridging season’ as they call it—with Marion Tait as acting director (tonight also acting Giselle’s mother) and senior ballet master Michael O”Hare (awarded a gold medal for outstanding contribution to ballet by the governors of the Royal Ballet Companies tonight) as assistant acting director. One could say BRB and Bintley’s legacy are in safe hands.
It is with Bintley and Galina Samsova’s 1999, safe, and closely researched, Giselle production that the autumn season opened, incorporating this two-day visit to London. A Giselle in her time, Samsova’s research led her to tapes of Svetlana Beriosova, Galina Ulanova and Alicia Alonso talking about the role, how act one demands acting skills, whilst act two is all dance. I would add that personality and charisma play a huge part too.
Giselle is a must-see ballet, an essential introduction to classical ballet, and to this purpose I take along a fifteen-year-old young man, who has never seen it, and guess what, he is more entranced by the Rhineland village first act with mountain waterfall, jolly villagers, harvest festival, young children flitting about and real white horse on which Albrecht’s fiancée Bathilde makes an entrance than by the Romantic Gothic Wilis second act, even though the late Hayden Griffin’s Gothic cathedral (do I recognise Whitby Abbey ruins?) and Mark Jonathan’s lighting are brilliantly evocative, moonlight casting shadows through its arched empty windows.
I have always preferred the second white act in this ballet of two halves, but I must say the company are splendid in the first. Bintley’s forte is to tell a good story. Not only does he do that but he restores the Harvest pas de deux, giving Tzu-Chao Chou and Beatrice Parma a chance to show off their variations, and first-rate they are.
Which in turn delays the inevitable dramatic end of act one and ups the tension. Is Bintley drawing out a point: the effete entitled aristos, who don’t get a good rap here, haughty Bathilde (Daria Stanciulescu) especially, against the generous workers sharing what they have with the rich hunting party? Feudal life exposed.
First staged at the Paris Opéra in 1841 with Carlotta Grisi in the lead role, libretto by Théophile Gautier (and Jules Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges) who was inspired by Heinrich Heine, Giselle is a staple of most ballet companies. Tonight the perfectly matched BRB Principals Momoko Hirata and César Morales take on the lead roles and give impeccable performances, she shy and demure, he all aristocratic slender elegance.
In some productions, Giselle dies of heartbreak when she realises she has been duped; in some she commits suicide on her deceiver’s sword—as if to say he killed me. Tonight, she falls on his sword, which makes sense of the fact that she is buried in unhallowed ground like Ophelia in Hamlet, yet the lead-up to her demise is that she mustn’t dance as she has a weak heart. And does she love dancing…
Her dancing saves the cheating man she loves from the vengeful Wili ghosts—Samantha Downs a commanding Myrtha, their queen. Bintley also gives Myrtha a longer solo variation at the beginning of act two, which Downs attacks with relish. The spectacle of eighteen Wilis in the moonlight, one even flits across the stage on a wire, is Ann Radcliffe / Mary Shelley eerie.
The Wilis are not without a victim though—Hilarion the forester (Kit Holder) who loves Giselle and who outs Albrecht and sets off the chain of tragic events gets his comeuppance. Giselle’s love not only saves weak-willed Albrecht from death by twenty-two entrechats (and much more, naturally) but sends her to heaven in a surprise apotheosis, saving her from the cold embrace of the Wilis. A church bell rings, the music crescendos and dies down, dawn breaks, and a remorseful Albrecht is left hunched over her grave. Hmm… He swore undying love…
This Giselle does not move me as much as some have in the past—its quiet excellence does not lean towards histrionics. Albrecht is not so much a cad as maybe someone who has not thought it through. How could he do this to such a sweet girl? What was he thinking seducing a gullible girl just out of childhood? Droit de seigneur? Is his match with Bathilde an obedient dynastic one? Is he unthinking? He seems sincere, though he’s already tricking her with the ‘he love me he loves me not’ flower scene.
Her mother warns her, but what do mothers know. Marion Tait spells it out in a wonderful mime sequence—there are plenty of jilted girls out there, who turn into implacable Wilis, you know. Does anyone ever listen to one’s mother?
Performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Koen Kessels, Adolphe Adams’s familiar score is beautifully brought out—musical motifs that stay in one’s ear, hummable, beguiling and poignant. Happy motifs in act one when repeated later during Giselle’s mad scene are unbearably sad. How good is that… it sends shivers down my spine...
Reviewer: Vera Liber