★★★★ GISELLE, ROYAL BALLET Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli in a production of classic good taste
The run of Giselle that opened at the Royal Opera House last night was completely sold out before it even started, and no wonder. Pair Sir Peter Wright's eerie production with some very fine casts and the reliable classiness of the Royal Ballet's corps de ballet and you have an enchanting package indeed.
Last night's Giselle was Marinela Nuñez, impeccable in every respect, but particularly charming as the merry, hopeful peasant girl of the first scenes (pictured below), and the loving spirit of the second act (the mad scene does not come quite so easily to this naturally sunny ballerina). The reliablly excellent Nuñez is so frequently fielded in press night casts that one is at risk of taking her for granted, but I was filled last night with conscious admiration for her work ethic, her commitment, and the seemingly effortless perfection of her dancing. She was dealing with a last minute change of Albrecht from Vadim Muntagirov, with whom she currently has an electric partnership, to unexceptionable but also unexciting Federico Bonelli, a situation in which other prima ballerinas might well betray either displeasure or discomfiture, but which Nuñez handled so graciously that no-one who hadn't checked before would have realised there had been a cast change.
Bonelli is another Royal Ballet workhorse who deserves credit for being good-naturedly reliable. His Albrecht is a fine figure of a Duke, with a disturbing hint of knowing aristocratic negligence about him; he is not a heedless boy but a man uncomfortably aware of the immorality of his actions. He dances nobly, partners graciously, smoulders handsomely – full marks for effort. The only caveat is chemistry: Nuñez and Bonelli put on a beautiful show, but they do not have the feverish spark that makes the best performances of Giselle breath-stopping and unforgettable.
All the more reason, then, to be grateful for the classic good taste of the Wright production, and the strength of supporting talent on stage bringing it to life. Bennet Gartside is an earnest almost pathetic Hilarion; more of a tragic victim than the confident hunter one sometimes sees. The pas de six, always a pleasure at the Royal Ballet, was led by Yasmine Naghdi and Alexander Campbell, recently promoted young principals who are both making debuts in the headline roles later this run. They imbued their pas de deux with a tenderness that both echoed and amplified the main love story, while Naghdi's pliant musicality was a particular delight; her Giselle will be worth seeing, one feels. The pas de six also offered the opportunity to admire Joseph Sissens, a fairly recent addition to the company, whose combination of bounding elevation and long elegant limbs had more than a touch of the young Muntagirov about them; I hope to see much more of him.
As I observed last time I saw this Giselle, Tierney Heap makes a splendid Myrthe. Heap's above-average height adds a brilliant touch of the uncanny to Myrthe's choreography: stationary, she is statuesque, a commanding presence, but in motion she is amazingly quick and pliable, a shred of storm cloud blown across a blustery sky. The rest of the corps were stunning as her army of wilis (pictured above), with particular credit going to Anna Rose O'Sullivan, a lovely, musical Moyna. With its phalanx of ghostly women, Act II of Giselle is one of the al-time great sights in ballet, and you couldn't ask for a more imposing rendition than the Royal Ballet's. In John Macfarlane's creamy Romantic tutus they cross the stage in serried ranks like swells on the open ocean, seemingly unstoppable; when they are arrested by spirit-Giselle's defence of her lover it is truly shocking – within the measured discipline of the choreography they are cast into confusion, their open arms suddenly crumpling inwards like breakers roiling on a rocky shore.This perfect storytelling through movement never gets old; if I had to pick one (narrative) ballet to watch for the rest of my life, it would be Giselle. In the age of #metoo, the first act's depiction of the abuse pf power for sexual gratification feels even closer to the bone than usual, and the second act's love-trumps-revenge has more bite: are we comfortable with Giselle's devotion? Does Albrecht really deserve it? Are the wilis or the lovers the moral victors of the piece?
You can't ask for more than thematic richness like this coupled to exquisite dancing and Macfarlane's threatening forest set, the stuff of (terrifying) fairytales. Koen Kessels conducts the Adam score as well as anyone can, and there are more fine dancers on stage than you can shake a lily wand at. With several fascinating Giselle-Albrecht pairs on offer (watch out for Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell, as well as former Bolshoi stars Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg) there's every reason to celebrate this production, this run, and the Royal Ballet.
- The Royal Ballet perform Giselle at the Royal Opera House until 9 March.
- Read more dance reviews on theartsdesk