Giselle, La Scala Ballet, Covent Garden, 6/8/2001
Sylvie Guillemís new production of Giselle, given here in London by La Scala Ballet in their first ever visit to Covent Garden, has been extensively trailed in the newspapers and already much discussed. In some ways itís a relief to be watching the actual production rather than just hearing it endlessly discussed and the pros and cons of new productions of the classics debated.
Covent Garden was packed - even the upper slips were full. Sylvie Guillem has many passionate admirers here, but this is the first time we have seen her choreograph and direct. I was curious to see what kind of Giselle she wanted to be, and how this compared to her Giselle for the Royal, who was a girl who brimmed over with shining happiness and exuberance. Her Giselle in this production wasnít quite so exuberant as in Peter Wrightís RB one, but she has obviously absorbed much from the Royalís tradition of naturalistic portrayal of character and narrative - and then characteristically gone her own way with it.
Guillemís been quoted as saying (I paraphrase from memory here) that she was tired of seeing productions with all the life sucked out of them. She intimated that so many layers of varnish had accreted over the original that it was hard to see and feel the real impact of Giselleís tragedy - a village girl betrayed by a duplicitous, aristocratic lover, whose ghost can nevertheless can forgive him and save him from death.
I have a certain sympathy with her view, but then I am watching ballet with eyes attuned to British stage traditions - and local tastes, not just at the Royal, but many other major British companies, prize acting and dramatic commitment as much as pure dance. The Bolshoiís Giselle, when it came here a few years ago, seemed a very strange affair compared with the level of naturalistic detail we were used to: the peasants in Act 1 were obviously not in any village - the little gold tassels hanging from the painted backcloths were the final touch. The corps never interacted with one another in the slightest and looked rather bored. Fine dancing by the corps in the second act did redeem the mannered first act, but the shallowness of that background did seem to undercut the force of the tragedy. But one production of Giselle shouldnít be a stick to beat every single one with, and it remains one of the most popular and enduring of the classics.
Guillem has rooted her Act 1 firmly in a world of real peasant toil and effort with a varied cast of characters including the village idiot and the local drunk. Her Giselle is just a girl among girls here, not standing out quite so dramatically from the background as Giselle does in more familiar versions. Guillem seems happy to emphasise the collective contribution even at the expense of her own role - itís by no means purely a showcase for her as a dancer and she has abandoned the in-your-face physicality of her former technique for a more controlled and restrained approach. Well, not totally: there are still moments when her foot rises up effortlessly by her ear, but they arenít as many as one would once have expected, and her limbs seem to float up there without apparent effort or forcing but just as a natural consequence of heady romance.
There are some strong pluses of this production, and a few minuses as well. The irritations first. The set design for Act 1 looked far too obtrusive, a wall which turned on a revolve to cut the stage in two, and showed different sides of village buildings: this then opened out into a wooden interior for the final scene of Act 1. This was very striking and sometimes quite ingenious but substantially reduced at times the space for dancing. I note that the designer (Paul Brown) has a great deal of opera experience, but this is the first time he has designed for ballet - and it did look more like an opera or theatre set.
The effect of this in Act 1 is to make the scale of this Giselle more restricted, more domestic, enclosed - maybe a deliberate choice in contrast to the open expanses of Act 2, but that sounds a better idea in print than it does in the theatre. The costumes for Act 1 are authentically dull peasant colours - dark browns, greys, a world away from the rather glamorous villagers in velvet and satin that one sometimes sees. But the contrast with the aristocrats is strongly felt. It would takes Les Brotherston to make these drab colours astonishing chic - but I suspect Guillem doesnít want anyone to like Act 1 for its pretty clothes. The design of Act 2 is also initially rather unsettling, the stage strewn with giant boulders which then rise up to float over the characters heads and intermittently mess up the lighting. This didnít add anything to the atmosphere, it just seemed an unnecessary distraction.
The most serious charge against Guillemís production however, may be the extent to which she has changed and adapted the choreography. Itís true that some of the familiar Giselle moments are gone - the mime of Giselleís mother, for instance (but then the Bolshoi production I mentioned earlier had jettisoned that as well, without any attempt to provide, as here, a danced illustration of her motherís fears). But much remains, in plot if not in dance. Act 1 feels as much a drama as a dance.
That is in fact this productionís strongest point. The narrative comes across with the utmost clarity, and the rivalry between Albert and Hilarion is starkly and powerfully conveyed. Iíve never felt so powerfully before the force of their final confrontation at the close of Act 1, fraught with a genuine sense of danger that murder was just a step away. Guillemís progression from initial reserve in the face of Albrechtís fervour, through open-hearted light-headed happiness in love to the sudden shock of betrayal is finely charted. Dancing out of pure happiness has seldom seemed so natural and obvious. Guillemís mad scene is very restrained, but still effective in its suffering: she isnít pretty in her suffering, just destroyed.
Guillemís intentions are very well served by her cast. We care for all her characters. Hilarion here is a passionate figure who can barely restrain his emotions: this was strongly put across by Franscesco Ventriglia. Itís not just a question of acting though - he gets more substantial choreography than usual in Act 2. A MacMillaneque peasant pas de deux in Act 1 was attractively presented by Deborah Gismondi and Antonino Sutera.
A major plus point for this production is Massimo Murru as Albrecht. Itís easy to see why Giselle would fall for him (this must be the most staggeringly handsome company to visit Covent Garden in years). He is charming, persuasive, at first carried away by his own ardour, until he has to face the consequences. His remorse and repentance in Act 2 is equally persuasive. He seems particularly attuned to Guillem as a partner, and it would be good to see him partnering her again at Covent Garden. (particularly in Marguerite and Armand). His dancing in Act 2 drew a warm response from the audience.
Guillem has not transformed Act 2 as much as Act 1, and rather more familiar steps remain. Her wilis are all dressed in their individual wedding gowns, yet manage still by virtue of similar skirts to present a uniform outline. After the naturalism of Act 1 it was interesting to see Guillem organise a corps of 24 into varying shapes with some assurance. Some of her touches here were particularly affecting - at dawn, the wilis cover their heads again with their veils and drift away. Guillem herself is a distant figure here, a weightless dream as much as woman.
Musically, the production has returned to Adamís earliest original score and added back in some elements which were originally cut. The resulting score is played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia with a fresh and lively feel - it would be good to here this score again to get a better grasp of the additions. The musicians in an onstage band at one pint in Act 1 seemed rather rough and ready, but this seemed to fit with the mood of rude exuberance at the grape harvest.
This was a gripping and affecting Giselle, a powerful and deeply felt realisation of the work. For an initial attempt at choreography, itís quite an achievement. There are other Giselles out there which are just as worthy of your attention: Giselle is strong enough to provide its messages of forgiveness and redemption through all manner of revisions. There are points in this production which I might quibble with but any faults of this production are too deeply entangled with its virtues to be easily teased apart. Itís a particular and potent dramatic vision, passionate but not pretty. The London audience adored it (and the dancers) and gave them all an equally passionate response.