I was lucky enough to catch the San Francisco Balletís Friday 25 February performance of ĎGiselleí at the splendid War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco which, with its sweeping marble staircases and fresh gold leaf somewhat resembles the Paris Opera House. Perhaps Iím just fancying this because San Francisco always reminds me of a youthful, less formal Paris.
This was Helgi Thomassenís 1999 production (more of which later). Giselle was danced by the exquisite Shanghai-born Yuan Yuan Tan, who has been with SFB since 1995. Only a slight dramatic reticence kept Tanís performance from being truly great. Her chiffon-soft dancing did not conceal her steely technique and those two elements made a seamless, breathtaking whole. Tanís feet are gorgeous - long, eloquent and so fast they looked as if they were speed-stitching a piece of delicate fabric; she is so light that she moves across the stage like a wind-blown leaf. Her first act mad scene, though, lacked the sense of abandon which would have made for a great Giselle. But her youth and trusting confidence in the treacherous Albrecht were truly touching.
Albrecht was crisply danced by the young Ukranian-born Vadim Solomakha, whose heartfelt acting and steady partnering made an excellent foil for Tan. Sherri LeBlancís streamlined dancing and unyielding hauteur made for a memorable Myrte and in the peasant pas de cinque Guennadi Neduguine was outstanding, with a heart-stopping spin which slowed down like a washing machine at the end of its spin-cycle. Such control! (How that peasant pas moves about numerically, though: Iíve seen peasant pas de trois, pas de quatre, pas de six and now, finally a pas de cinque. Whereís to go after this?). Australian-born Damian Smith was a notable Hilarion, tall and good-looking and with a remarkable stage presence. He made you wonder if Giselle was maybe a little off-the-wall in her choice of men, but then Iíve often thought that in productions of Giselle over the years.
Our own Sarah Sessions played a splendidly regal Bathilde, much helped by Mikael Melbyeís sumptuous medieval and-then-some costumes. Melbyeís first act village set was pedestrian, a far-off hill topped by a Disneyish castle as the focal point, but his second-act dense forest was properly mysterious and chilling.
Thomassonís production overall was pretty satisfying, but lacked the detail to make it outstanding. When not dancing, for instance, the peasants merely stand around waiting for their next number instead of interacting with each other, and poor Bathilde is given little to do except act regal. I suppose Iíve got used to the RB version, which is full of sunny little details (I have fond memories of Genesia Rosatoís Bathilde nearly fainting at the sight of a skinned rabbit - a real townie). And the production was sadly not free of the curse of every single producton of Giselle Iíve ever seen; namely, a fear of presenting the Wilis as what they should be - ghostly, frightening creatures. Instead we get a lot of pretty girlies in sparkling white frocks. When is someone going to have the courage to make them look like the scary undead theyíre meant to be? Would it hurt to put them in ragged, wispy grey instead of the usual Persil white? Would the odd wild hank of hair and hint of greeny-grey in the make up really frighten us? And if it did, isnít that what it should do? My sister, whose first ever viewing of Giselle it was, said she would not have had a clue that they were meant to be ghosts if I hadnít given her a 15-minute tutorial over our pre-performance drinks.
Finally, a charming quirk of the SF Opera House is that it has a small two-bed hospital handily adjacent to the downstairs bar. The male attendant told us that it was mainly used to revive overcome ballet and opera fans, particularlyWagnerians. And to think no-one thought to add such an invaluable facility to our own redesigned Opera House!