Giselle, Paris Opera Ballet

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, January 29

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé
The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

GISELLE may be seen as a ballet of two contrasting halves, the world of the living giving way to the realm of the spirit. It is usually played in that manner, with Giselle’s death at the end of Act I the bridge from reality to the fantastical world of the Wilis, wronged women who wreak revenge on any man foolish enough to enter their ghostly domain.

Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite production fruitfully blurs that distinction. The curtain rises on Alexandre Benois’s 1924 design for the ballet, one in which castles perch on peaks in the background and the foreground is a leafy, autumnal glade. The idealised, romanticised peasant village of the first act is already a place of the imagination. For once it’s meaningful rather than puzzling that all the young women – jolly girls celebrating the harvest – are dressed identically, as they will be in the second act.

The mime for Giselle’s mother, often reduced or smudged elsewhere, is absolutely central. Berthe (Amelie Lamoureux on opening night) describes in detail what lies beyond the village confines for young women whose hearts are broken. Not only that, she is warning of very present danger in the person of Albrecht, the disguised nobleman who has won Giselle’s heart but fails to fool Berthe. The veil separating this world from the next is almost transparent.

All this is embedded in the bodies of the POB dancers, who capture an essence rather than carve out character. On opening night Mathieu Ganio’s glamorous Albrecht was nobility encapsulated, Audric Bezard’s gamekeeper Hilarion the equal in looks and bearing to Albrecht, Dorothee Gilbert’s meltingly beautiful  Giselle almost a creature of the air from the beginning, Marie-Agnes Gillot’s Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, a figure of implacable control.

Interestingly and tellingly the non-dancing royals who stop by Berthe’s cottage for mid-hunt refreshment are the most recognisably human, but they are important only as a way of precipitating the tearing of the veil.

The choreography has many hands on it, as do all productions of Giselle, which had its premiere in Paris in 1841. The 1991 adaptation by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov adds individual grace notes to the generally known framework that add to the high level of sophistication. Particularly lovely is the way in which feet sparkle with the clarity and brilliance of diamonds – the speed and articulation are extraordinary – while the upper body curves with languorous sensuality.

Best of all is the quality of restraint. At no time is the work stretched out of shape in a hunt for the big bang. The dancing is superb because it refuses to glitter emptily, and because there is that unanimity of style and purpose for which POB is famed.  All is underpinned by a wonderful reading of the Adam score by the Sydney Lyric Orchestra under the alertly responsive conducting of Koen Kessels.

The women of the corps are breathtaking in Act II as is Gillot – a dancer with enormous presence. The stage is hers to control and she does it superhumanly, landing as silently as a cat. There is a striking moment when the Wilis, kneeling to Myrtha, turn what you might expect to be a legato sweep of the arms into two definite movements. The automaton-like effect further imprints the idea of the Wilis’ subjugation to their queen and their existence as a regiment rather than as individuals – something that is possible only because of the immaculate corps.

And above all there is Gilbert. Shyly and quietly radiant in the first act, almost transparent thistledown in the second, and entirely unforgettable.

Four other casts are scheduled to appear during the season. Gilbert appears only twice more, on Thursday evening (January 31) and Saturday’s matinee (February 2). Also dancing the title role are etoiles Isabelle Ciaravola, Ludmila Pagliero and Myriam Ould-Braham. Premiere danseuse Melanie Hurel, who was charming and vibrant in the opening night peasant pas de deux with delightful Emmanuel Thibault, is given one performance at the matinee on February 9.

Veteran POB star Nicolas Le Riche was a last-minute scratching so Ganio – who joined the POB corps in 2001 at the age of 17 and was named etoile an astonishingly swift three years later – steps into the breach to partner Ould-Braham when his performances with Gilbert are done. Ganio’s elevation, the speed and precision of his beaten footwork and his aristocratic lines make him a wonder to behold – a man who could never be mistaken for one of the people, to be sure, but really, when did we ever believe that when watching Giselle?

This review first appeared in The Australian online on January 30. An edited version appeared in The Australian on January 31.

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