Choreography Marius Petipa after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, music Adolphe Adam, production Peter Wright
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

Marianela Nuñez (Giselle) and Vadim Muntagirov (Albrecht) Credit: Tristram Kenton
Marianela Nuñez (Giselle) and Vadim Muntagirov (Albrecht) Credit: Tristram Kenton
Marianela Nuñez (Giselle) and Vadim Muntagirov (Albrecht) Credit: Tristram Kenton
Artists of The Royal Ballet as The Wilis Credit: Tristram Kenton

Giselle was a hit in 1841 (scenario Théophile Gautier after Heinrich Heine), and it is still an evolved hit today. Peter Wright’s coherent 1985 production is a wonderful way to celebrate his 95th birthday this month. All hail.

And all hail to the orchestra (those heartrending strings) under Boris Gruzin, and tonight’s (third night) cast of Marianela Nuñez (Giselle) and Vadim Muntagirov (Albrecht), as always a perfect soulful match. I saw Nuñez make her debut in the role in 2009 and here she is as if time has stood still.

But it’s her partnership with Muntagirov that makes Giselle fly. So natural together, tender, generous, genuine: characterisations have matured. I see unforced acting and dancing of the highest order. And his kiss on her cheek at curtain call says it all, such lovely rapport. The spontaneous roars from the auditorium are well won.

Even the Wilis (spectral shades of jilted girls) who dance unfaithful men to their deaths earn a surprise cheer. The twenty-four-strong corps de ballet has been well drilled to chilling effect. They rise from the midnight fog like mist itself. But I’m running ahead of myself.

The story starts during the grape harvest in a charming Rhine village with its jolly girls and boys. Giselle, who loves to dance, is made queen of the vintage. And to cap it all she has fallen madly deeply in love, as only the innocent sheltered young can, with someone not from the village, someone masquerading as a peasant called Loys. His bearing ought to give him away. Muntagirov’s line is beautiful, noble, but he is gentle, not too pushy, if persistent.

He is Duke Albrecht, probably checking out the village girls: medieval droit du seigneur and all that. Though in Muntagirov’s sweet boy persona, one can’t quite imagine that. Until one encounters his betrothed, the haughty Bathilde, and is Christina Arestis an entitled one, flinching at the touch of lowly orders. No wonder he escapes to the village.

Fun it is, carefree it must seem to him, shirking his responsibilities. I have always preferred the second romantic gothic ballet blanc act, but tonight I’m won over by the first—for the first time ever. Portrayals so convincing, that I’m drawn in, forgetting my surroundings.

But there’s a fly in the ointment—there always is—local forester Hilarion (Lukas B Brændsrød very good) is in love with Giselle and expects to marry her. He puts two and two together—the hidden sword and the hunting horn. He is the catalyst for Albrecht being exposed, for Giselle killing herself, falling on that sword. Love undoes her in every way.

Nineteenth century melodrama and don't we love it. One wills a happy ending for Giselle and Albrecht despite its improbability, in spite of her mother Berthe’s foreboding mime (Elizabeth McGorian precise) with its second act Wili musical motifs. Echoes of musical motifs cross over from one act to the other, keeping the acts taut with anticipation and hindsight. Hilarion has not deceived Giselle, jealous love drove him, her death as much a loss to him as to them all, but he must die. He is expendable.

When Albrecht enters the wood dressed in black (a veritable Hamlet) bearing white lilies there ought not to be a dry eye in the house. We are living in emotional times of loss and grief, and Giselle is cathartic—for me. Adolphe Adam’s music enters the very soul as Albrecht’s quiet sorrow spills over into dance. He reaches for her spirit, she towards him, both “with the incorporeal air do hold discourse” until they finally connect.

Giselle, like Ophelia, is buried in unhallowed ground: hence the overgrown haunted wood, and the Wilis that flit like fireflies. Spooky, but true love is not afraid. Giselle’s pure love protects Albrecht: he is still alive as dawn breaks. She has saved him and herself by defying the Wilis and their implacable queen Myrtha (Mayara Magri). One wonders how he will live with Bathilde and she with him, nursing wounded hearts—if she has one.

The whole cast tonight is excellent, the pas de six (William Bracewell particularly fine), even Bennet Gartside in the walk-on Leader of the Hunt role—I love it when he brushes his fingers across the garden table to see if it’s clean. That’s attention to detail. As are John Macfarlane’s evocative designs: the picture book village with its wooden shacks and sunlit hills, the moonlit forest with church bells tolling.

The run features fabulous casts, with several debuts. First night saw Natalia Osipova partnered by First Soloist Reece Clarke making his debut as Albrecht. They can be seen again later in the run. Second night saw Lauren Cuthbertson (back from maternity leave) and Federico Bonelli. Still to come are Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball with Marianela Nuñez as Myrtha; Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell; Sarah Lamb and Marcelino Sambé (debut); Laura Morera and Ryoichi Hirano; Akane Takada and Cesar Corrales (debut). There are few tickets left, any cast would be worthy of a look. There will be a special digital stream on 3 December.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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