Giselle, Royal Ballet | Dance reviews, news & interviews
Giselle, Royal Ballet
Natalia Osipova is one of the great Giselle interpreters of the age
Ah, Giselle. Despite being cobbled together from a huge stack of 19th-century literary and dramatic tropes – fans of La Sylphide, Robert le Diable, Lucia di Lammermoor, Walter Scott and German Romanticism will feel right at home – and having a score from Adolphe Adam that is definitely not in the first league of ballet music, Giselle is endlessly compelling: the ballet sticks in your mind. The miraculously-intact 19th-century choreography of the second act is part of the attraction, but so is the character of Giselle, the peasant girl who, seduced and betrayed by a nobleman in disguise, kills herself in grief and yet after death protects him from the vengeful Wilis, the forest ghosts who force men to dance themselves to death.
Natalia Osipova as Giselle draws the kind of awestruck, reverent reaction from ballet lovers that still breathes from contemporary descriptions of Marie Taglioni or Vaslav Nijinsky. Osipova’s elevation is already legendary, but her technique at high speed is an equal source of delight. Lovers of music can find the plodding tempi of modern ballet performances painful, but Osipova in the first act is like quicksilver: I don’t doubt she could do it all at concert speed and still look unhurried. And this prodigious dancing talent is harnessed to an equal force of acting. Alive, her Giselle is wide-eyed, sweet but ominously sensitive. Dying, her convulsively trembling fingers and ashen face have the whole house holding its breath. And as the undead Wili, she is mesmerising: hiding those luminous black eyes to show her transition to the spirit world, and floating like smoke through those back-bending sylph jumps, where she hovers like an apostrophe in the air. Purists might criticise Osipova’s mad scene as too febrile, or the spinning arabesque of her first entrance as a Wili as too fast, but no-one in the theatre last night could doubt they were watching one of the great Giselle interpreters of our age.
It may be true that “no-one ever staged Giselle because they had a damn fine Albrecht” – but it is also true that having one helps. Enormously. In the first act, the unexpected passion and sensibility of a peasant girl turns the nobleman-in-disguise comedy staple into a tragedy; in the second, it is actually the unexpected sensibility of the nobleman that calls out enough remembered humanity from the wraith of Giselle for it to repulse his tragic doom and allow him, novellistically, to walk off the field. The power and the fate of the two characters may be asymmetrical – Giselle humble but certain, dying but transcendent; Albrecht, powerful but vacillating, saved but untriumphant – but the connection between them is what transforms a good production of Giselle (and Peter Wright's for the Royal Ballet is tip-top) into a great event.
Sadly, Carlos Acosta (pictured above left) was not the man to provide that connection last night. Although his technique has been going downhill for years, audiences can still be seduced by his charisma in roles that play to his strengths, like the cheery, canary-clad Colas in La Fille Mal Gardéé or the chirpy Basilio of Don Quixote. The morally ambivalent but sexually fascinating Albrecht, though, seems beyond his powers. Acosta’s acting is stilted, his dancing not much above marking, except when he flings himself down, exhausted before Myrthe, the Wilis’ merciless Queen. Let’s hope, if the Royal Ballet is determined to pair Osipova with guest principals rather than in-house stars, that they look further afield in future.
Hikaru Kobayashi played Myrthe as an otherwordly and terrifying, but also strangely peremptory Queen, her command over the Wilis conveyed mostly through sharply flicked arms rather than regal force of personality. The corps de ballet were beautifully eerie as the massed Wilis, whose first entrance (pictured right) in veils, heads tipped forward in a disturbing pastiche of the wedding days they were denied in life, is particularly effective against John Macfarlane’s creepy pine forest set, all uprooted trees and smudgy, angry sky.
Mention must go to Deirdre Chapman for her magnetic presence as Berthe, Giselle’s wise, suspicious, protective mother, chillingly miming the legend of the Wilis to warn her daughter against seduction by the impostor Albrecht. And there was sterling work from Valentino Zucchetti as the lead man in the first act pas de six, performing an exhausting petit allegro variation with flair and enviable technique. All this was accompanied in competent but hardly inspiring fashion by the orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Boris Gruzin, who brought out the workaday qualities of Adam’s score more than its occasional bursts of melodic richness.
It's becoming a cliché on theartsdesk to say that the evening was Osipova's – and thanks to the many strengths of Peter Wright's production that would not be entirely true – but alive, dying or undead, her Giselle is an elemental force. London is lucky to have this chance to see it.
- Giselle is at the Royal Opera House until 10 February. The performance on Monday 27 January (starring Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta) is being broadcast live to cinemas as part of the ROH Live Cinema Season.
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