If you see only one Giselle in your lifetime, make it the Paris Opera Ballet’s

Anton Dolin, a famous interpreter of Albrecht in Giselle, once said that the heroine of the ballet should not emerge from her cottage as if she is already fragile and soon to die of a broken heart, but rather as a carefree girl who is the epitome of joie de vivre and head over heels in love.

On the opening night of the Paris Opera Ballet’s 11-day season in Sydney, Dorothée Gilbert, gave us that girl – mischievous, playful and buoyant. There’s only a hint that she might not survive the excitement of a day that begins with a flirtation with Albrecht, continues with the arrival of a royal hunting party in fabulous headdresses and floor sweeping cloaks, then ends with a tragedy that ruins many lives.

Gilbert’s performance was not only dramatically convincing but one that exemplified the Romantic style of ballet that evolved in the 1830s and reached its zenith in the masterpiece of Giselle, first performed in Paris in 1841.

Equally convincing and equally superb in their artistry were Mathieu Ganio as Albrecht and Marie-Agnès Gillot as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.

The exactitude of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet is the result of the company’s long history, the fact that most are French and most are trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School, one of the toughest schools in the world. Few survive the selection process from year to year and even fewer are accepted into the company.

It’s obvious that the style and steps of Giselle are in the dancers’ bones, inherited as they are from a long line of predecessors most recently the company’s ballet master, Laurent Hilaire and the former ballet master, Patrice Bart.

Almost every ballet company in the world has a Giselle in their repertoire but if you’re only able to see one production of the ballet in your lifetime, I believe it should be the Paris Opera Ballet’s most recent production, created by Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991 and revised in 1998 with sets designed for the company by Alexandre Benois in 1924.

The décor is steeped in storybook romanticism with the Rhineland landscape of Act 1 set under a canopy of summery trees. Two imposing, turreted castles emerge from rocky crags overlooking two simple cottages. Above there’s an omen – clouds in the sky that signal a stormy end to the day.

Act II seems to take place in another season. Giselle’s grave shelters under a mantle of bare black branches. In the background a moonlit white church draws the eye and was, for me, a slight distraction from the powerful, triangular relationship of Giselle, Albrecht and Myrtha and the perfection and synchrony of the corps of wilis.

Giselle is an exercise in triangles, Hilarion creates the initial triangular tension, then, as Giselle dances her solo, she is the centre of another triangle, with her mother seated on her right and Albrecht on her left.

Before she dies, she runs in a triangle, from Hilarion to her mother to her lover and after her death, she is the strongest link in the three-way tussle as she fights with Myrtha for Albrecht’s life.

On opening night, Dorothée Gilbert’s expression of the Romantic style was evident through her sustained line in arabesque, her epaulement, her batterie, the freedom of her head and the elegant line of her neck.

Mathieu Ganio is blessed with a body that represents the prototype of the prince. His sustained leaps have that floating, hanging in the air quality and his Act II variation was to me, faultless.

Ganio was an ardent Albrecht, slightly more daring than the usual interpretation in the way he approached then embraced Giselle in Act I.

Myrtha is clearly an ideal role for the tall and charismatic Marie Agnes Gillot, an intelligent dancer who brings great focus to the way she commands the corps de ballet of wilis and her relentless demands that Hilarion and Albrecht must dance to their death.

Hilarion, the gamekeeper, often portrayed as the local yokel who is not the best looking boy in the village, was danced by the handsome Audric Bezard who struck the right balance between anger, revenge and regret.

In the peasant pas of Act I, Emmanuel Thibault’s impressive elevation and beats came with a bonus – his evident enjoyment of just being on the stage. With the delicate Mélanie Hurel as his partner, the couple exemplified the happy relationship and joy that Giselle herself might have been seeking with Albrecht.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the production was the detailed mime. Wilfred, the equerry to Albrecht (Adrien Bodet), used this dance language in a very eloquent way when he advised Albrecht to be careful in his planned duplicity.

As Berthe, Giselle’s mother, Amélie Lamoureux, foretold the story of the wilis, with clear gestures, indicating how the vindictive dancing creatures arise from the ground, complete with veils and wings.

At this point, the lighting dims, as if to anticipate the transition from the vivid, real world of the village, to the unreal, moonlit world of the wilis.

A further mime scene, seldom performed in productions of Giselle, opens Act II when Hilarion’s friends play a dice game before they are startled by the wilis who appear not as pretty women with floral wreaths around their hair, but as aggressive ghosts.

Judging from interval and after show comments, it was the wilis who made the biggest impression on the opening night audience whether they were newcomers to Giselle or seasoned observers.

The 26 wilis, in their long, diaphanous, off the shoulder tutus, created a dream like illusion as they moved as one. Most impressive was the identically curved line of their arms and the uniformity of their lines in arabesque as the corps criss-crossed the stage.

The monotones of the act are in startling contrast to the summer colours of Act I in which the corps of village girls are dressed alike in peach and pale pastel colours, while the royals parade in jewel colours, among them ruby, gold, purple and forest green.

Not everything went according to plan on opening night. The orchestra, titled the Sydney Lyric Orchestra, conducted by the Belgian, Koen Kessels, needed more rehearsal time to work in harmony with the company. At times, the tempo seemed too fast and there was some musical uncertainty during Act II’s adage for Giselle and Albrecht

The lighting may need adjusting at the end of Act 1 when a follow spot creates an odd effect on the backcloth.

As for the mist effect in Act II, there was so much dry ice pumped onto the stage at the beginning and end that the dancers were partially obscured although not, thankfully, when Ganio, as Albrecht, seems to awake from a dream as he lies by the grave.

Was the whole act Albrecht’s dream? Dreams in ballet are standard fare – from Clara’s in Nutcracker to Prince Siegfried’s in Nureyev’s Swan Lake – but this is the first time in my memory that Albrecht indicates that the wilis were a figment of his imagination.

Giselle has been subject to some radical reinterpretations, from Mats Ek’s production in which Giselle ends up in a mental hospital to Fabulous Beast’s bloodthirsty setting in an Irish village, complete with butchers and line dancers.

But as Cyril Beaumont wrote in his wonderful book, A Ballet Called Giselle, it might be tempting to tinker with the story, but the patina of the ballet refuses to be erased, and perhaps this is one ballet where respect for heritage is always going to be the best option. The Paris Opera Ballet production proves that.

6 Comments

  1. sandra griffin
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    From the Dress Circle the smoke in Act 2 created an awesome effect. I commented it was the best behaved smoke I have ever seen onstage!

  2. valerie
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Thanks for letting me know, Sandra. I’ve seen the production twice now but only from the middle of the stalls where the fog does block out some of the mime scene for the dice game players and the movement across the stage of Hilarion and Albrecht. It’s always good to move to different seats in a theatre especially one as big as the Capitol to see the production from different levels and with different sight lines. I remember watching Swan Lake in the round when the English National Ballet was in Sydney and during one performance, I climbed up to the last row in the Sydney Entertainment Centre to see what it looked like from there – result: like looking through the wrong end of the telescope but with a great view of the patterns of the choreography.

  3. Posted January 31, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    We saw last night’s performance and I couldn’t agree more about the wonderful performances by the principals and the corp. We were in front stalls and my wife commented on the excessive smoke in Act 2. I thought it was an ideal opening to the act but now think maybe I missed something with the game players..

  4. Yvonne
    Posted February 3, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I saw this production for a second time at the 2 February matinee. This was the performance where everyone was evacuated at interval when a backup battery overheated in the basement. The thing I noticed was how very restrained the smoke effects were compared to opening night. I was in the rear stalls this time and the dice playing activity was all very clear and the smoke discreet – just lightly covering the floor. I couldn’t decide whether this was the result of fine-tuning after opening night or caution so as not to alarm an audience that had already seen the Safety Curtain go down for real!

  5. lee christofis
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Valerie, I agree with much of what you say about this production, but I liked the draped costumes of the women of the court, a great change from the floating-sofa numbers some designers give Bathilde and her friends. The Gothic scalloped bottoms flowed easily too, contributing to the women’s long line, and the overall story-book style. But what about Wilfred’s silly costume, so elegant as to look like one of the courtiers, or prince’s double? And why do men get away with glossy contemporary haircuts, when the women are slavishly coiffed in period? A universal issue. Trivia, perhaps. There was nothing trivial about Isabelle Ciavarola’s Giselle. After a lively and credible act one, her second act was an exercise in micro-management for at least half of her dances. Her second adage was like watching a machine go through gear changes – e.g. stop arabesque at 90 degree, then lurch the torso forward, then tilt into the penche. Hers was a classical, not romantic reading of the text and I found it distracting and unengaging. Perhaps too her stature, a mature womanly one, goes against her here, as it did not, in Bayadere a while back. Pity this because Karl Paquette’s Albrecht was charming and warm. He’s very gifted, a fine, unforced technician, (unlike Audric Bezard, the Hilarion) and still looks like an ingenue. I was pleased to see his fluidity here, because in last January’s Onegin (dreary in all departments) at the Garnier, he was wooden right up until the last scene. I’m delighted to note that the corps was NOT perfect on Saturday night, but still, lively in act one, very beautiful and humanised by the much faster tempi than we’re used to. Act two was very impressive, especially Emilie Cozette’s Myrthe – tough as a diamond!

  6. valerie
    Posted February 5, 2013 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your insights – much appreciated! Agree completely about Karl Paquette’s very warm interpretation of Albrecht. I’m wondering about Isabelle Ciavarola’s stamina, as in her first performance of the season, on Wednesday last week, she seemed anxious dancing some parts of the Act I solo especially the hops en diagonale which she danced in the opposite direction to every production I’ve ever seen, including the POB’s). Her beautifully arched feet and evident flexibility might mean she is susceptible to ankle problems. Then she had to dance again two nights in succession, on Friday and Saturday nights. This is an arduous schedule.
    Interesting about the male/female difference in hair styles. The women in both acts had centre-parted hair, same as the famous look of Olga Spessivtseva.

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Mathieu Ganio, photo © Sebastian Mathe

Mathieu Ganio,photo © Sebastian Mathe

Marie-Agnes Gillot, photo © Icare

Marie-Agnes Gillot, photo © Icare

Dorothee Gilbert, photo © Michel Lidvac

Dorothee Gilbert, photo © Michel Lidvac

Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle, Act I, photo © Christian Leiber

Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle, Act I, photo © Christian Leiber