Review – Giselle – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House

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Tonight, as an anniversary treat, my husband took me to the Royal Opera House to see Giselle. Now, going to the ballet isn’t such a treat for me as it might be for some people, since I go several times a year; but part of the reason I can go several times a year is that I usually get seats in the back of the amphitheater and also frequently skip going to see story ballets, which inevitably cost more than mixed bill programs. I don’t feel cheated doing this; I am genuinely enthusiastic about mixed bill ballets and I’m simply grateful that I can afford to buy seats at all (and certainly grateful that I’m not stuck standing in the side slips). The reason why this was a treat is because he’d splurged and got me floor (“stalls” in English parlance) seats – the very first time ever for me! And he chose to do so for a ballet I really love – Giselle is my very favorite story ballet. I am a sucker for evil fairies, that’s all there is to it.

But Giselle really is so much more than just evil fairies. It’s also a mad dance (reminding me of Lucia di Lammermoor, which has a famous mad scene but didn’t do a thing for me – not surprising as I don’t care for 19th century opera) and a “dance yourself to death” scene (rather like “The Red Shoes,” though of course it came much later). This means there are some really great opportunities for showy dancing. Add this into a story with an emotional plot that’s all capital letters and, well, you’ve got Giselle, the story of an ugly ducking (or beautiful gosling) who turns herself into a heroine by the end of the show. This is not bad for a girl who (in this version) kills herself over the first man she falls in love with.

Tonight’s show featured sexy strawberry blond Ed Watson as the rather dastardly Albrecht and Leanne Benjamin as Giselle. Watson was a great Albrecht – throughout the first act he kept his eyes on Giselle at all times and acted the consummate seducer, concerned with looking convincing in her eyes while simultaneously being completely unconcerned with her feelings or her good health (as when he shook his head to discourage her from believing her mother’s warnings about her health and the Wilis). Benjamin was, meanwhile, a great Giselle – she’s such a sillly goose, and her wide-eyed innocence is part of the fun of the first act.

The other great fun is all of the dancing that gets jammed in under typically weak balletic justification. There is a long scene in which the villagers dance a sort of harvest dance, which back in the early days would have made me go, “Now what the heck is this doing polluting up the story?” But, of course, the goal is to have some dance. I enjoyed the pas de six, especially the strong figure cut by James Hay (if I’m getting my names right – even though I could see the dancers well, I didn’t see faces for all of them in the program – a simply unforgivable oversight in my eyes. I want to learn all of them by name!). However, the woman who was getting most of the solo time seemed to just not have her balance nailed, and the stiff grin on her face to me emphasized the fact that she was actually working her buns off to get through her solos. Her partner had to hold onto her very strongly to keep her in the right place, and while I admired him for his great support, it seems that a better dancer would have had much more core strength developed than she did. I mean, you shouldn’t need a man to help you get into position en pointe.

The costumes and set were also good, rich without being too noisy. I was, however, utterly distracted by the costumes for Albrecht’s family – the men seemed to look quite Tudor with their slashed sleeves and short jackets, while the women, with their beaded headdresses, seemed to be quite a bit more medieval. In fact, I was disappointed when the well-dressed woman accompanying “the Duke of Courland” turned out to be his daughter (Genesia Rosato, looking far too old for the role) rather than his wife. It’s not how I remember the story going when I’ve seen it before, when there was a different woman for Albrecht to be engaged to, and with so many lush little swanlings on the edges of the scene, I was sure one of them would step forward to claim Albrecht’s hand as her own and spent rather a lot of time figuring out which one would do it. (Oops.)

This wasn’t the only plot point that came through differently for me – I am convinced that I’ve always seen Giselle die of heart failure. Perhaps I misread her frantic dance with Albrecht’s sword before – but I do not recall seeing her stab herself before, though this did enable her to collapse fantastically in Albrecht’s arms after her fabulous mad scene (better than Anastasya Matvienko). I also felt that Giselle’s mom was warning of Giselle’s weak heart earlier in the act (in addition to the Wilis), but perhaps I am just completely incapable of interpreting ballet mime and read the rest of the scene according to my mistakes.

Act two is even more fun, as we get to see Evil Fairies! and of course Hilarion (Ricardo Cervera)’s “dance to the death.” Part of the reason I love Giselle so much is that it’s fun to see fairies – well, Wilis, really, but with their white dresses and wings they look like fairies – being mean rather than acting noble. Sadly, Laura Morera played Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, like I’ve seen her every time – a fixed expression on her face, her eyes very wide open, her mouth curved in a cruel smile – which makes her come off rather like a praying mantis, observing the laws of nature rather than actually being able to take pleasure in suffering. I think I’ve decided that while this is definitely Myrtha’s look, I’d like to see her act like she’s got a little more intelligence and emotion behind those flat eyes, responding more strongly when Hilarion and Albrecht plead for their lives.

A lot of the greatness of this act is the whole “white ballet” – a whole stage full of women in white skirts moving more or less in unison. In this case, the women had veils over their faces, which they kept on for rather a long time, which I felt heightened the spookiness and made the scene even more gorgeous. That said, the scene in which they forced Hiliarion to dance to his death was just fantastic. Cervera appeared to give it all, and what a great role it is, in which you have to show just what a good dancer you are – so good you could dance until you killed yourself with the effort! His leaps and spins were amazingly high, he let just enough “control” go so that he looked like he was losing it (while clearly not!) – all of the time he spent skulking and whining in the first act paid off as we finally got to see what a great dancer he was. No, the Wilis were not going to spare him, and no, Giselle wasn’t going to come back to save him, no matter how much he loved her. Per this telling, he really dies when the Wilis chase him into the lake, but I prefer to believe his dancing really killed him. I look forward to seeing Cervera given another opportunity to strut his stuff like he did tonight.

After this it’s mostly emotional drama, with some lovely pas de deux with Giselle and Albrecht, but the height is, no matter how you look at it, Albrecht being tortured into dancing himself to death by Myrthe. “Beg, puny mortal! Nothing can save you now!” Was Watson going to let Cervera show him up? Well … he had just spent the previous hour and a half really putting himself out there, and I kind of think it’s impossible for Albrecht to really outdance Hilarion, as the big solo is really all Hilarion has to do for the entire evening. But there was Watson, all gorgeous and wonderful, a fantastic dancer who had spent most of the evening being an amazing partner, out there showing off his stuff as a soloist. And, well, he is really good. So it’s a bit hard to say who did better, and to be honest, at the time I was enjoying myself so much that I wasn’t really comparing the two.

Overall, if it isn’t clear, I just loved this show. It’s no wonder it’s sold out for its run – but still, Giselle – if you’re ever going to fork out as much for ballet tickets as you could to fly to Italy for the weekend, this is the show to do it for, and it was a great way to celebrate my anniversary. Thanks, hon!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 13th, 2009. Giselle continues May 26th. Don’t be discouraged by it being sold out – it’s pretty well guaranteed that there will be returns, and tickets are sold just on the day.)

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3 Responses to “Review – Giselle – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House”

  1. The Ballet Bag Says:

    I think we can help with the suicide vs. weak heart issue. Sir Peter Wright considers it vital to the story that Giselle should stab herself/commit suicide, otherwise there is no way to justify the fact that her grave lies in “unconsecrated ground”, which in turn makes her a prey for the Wilis.

    I think many Companies are not so fussed about the inconsistency and indeed we heard Sir Peter say at a recent masterclass that there are some ballerinas who point blank refuse to stab themselves (we were rather curious but he did not name any…).

    Some of the RB dancers emphasize the stabbing by wiping their blood stained hands on their dresses towards the end of the mad scene and some of them do this very discreetly, great fun to observe what each one does!

    Hope this helps!

    One half of the ballet bag might be at the Diaghilev Gala but we are not sure yet…

  2. Exit, pursued by a bear Says:

    Interesting. I love Giselle as well, but I’ve never seen her stab herself (although, in your context of her being buried in unconsecrated ground, must admit that this does actually make good sense). However, there are a couple of points:

    The Wilis, remember, are the restless spirits of girls who were jilted at the altar (Silesia must be a hotbed of prenuptial rejections!) and who presumably all died of broken hearts. Consecrated ground or not makes no difference, presumably, to the anguish of the spirit which has unfinished business. They can’t ALL have been buried in suicides’ graves! And Giselle very clearly has a gravestone in Act II – often a cross – and the Christian church would never allow a suicide to be buried under a cross. In fact, I’m not that sure they would allow a tombstone either.

    Giselle’s mother – or is she her Grandmother, I can never remember; elderly female relative anyway, spends quite a lot of time miming to Giselle that she’ll come to a sticky end with all this dancing. In fact, I’m all but positive that a couple of times in most of the productions I’ve seen she actually does ballet-mime for “Slow down, girl, remember you have a weak heart”.

    Hilarion, btw, does usually get drowned. He’s danced closer and closer to the edge of the lake and then finally falls in, too exhausted to save himself. In the Danish Ballet production, he’s danced to the edge and then actually pushed in!

    The last time I saw Giselle at the ROH, the woman dancing Myrtha (can’t now recall her name) got her foot caught in a badly draped side-cloth as she was making her final exit (backwards, on pointe) and fell over, poor cow. It did make her exit somewhat undignified!

    Best EVER production? Ballet Nacionale de Cuba. Those Wilis were SCARY – mainly because of the corps’ utter precision. They literally moved as one. Him Indoors remembers a production (although unfortunately cannot quite remember where) in which the Wilis didn’t float on as usual, but actually “dug themselves out of their graves” which were scattered across a bank at the back of the stage. And far from being pretty-pretty in floaty white tulle, were all in mouldy rags and tattered bridal dresses. I’d love to have seen this, although suspect I probably would have had nightmares afterwards.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      This was fantastic! Ballet Nacional was my favorite too, and it’s because their corps was SO DAMNED SCARY. But I wanna see that troupe of dancing zombie Ms. Havishams – that sounds great!

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