The Ballet National de Marseille, under the directorship of the former Paris Opera Ballet star Marie-Claude Pietragalla since 1998, gave two performances of a new production of "Giselle" at the Macau Cultural Centre. I didn't see Pietragalla in the title role, as the first performance on 8 June which I attended was danced by another cast.
This new version of "Giselle" which was only premiered in Marseille in late May was produced by Eric Quillere, a premier danseur of the Paris Opera Ballet. Quillere has transposed the setting of the ballet from 19th century Rhineland to the 1950s, with contemporary sets and costumes designed by Rodolfo Natale. Quillere has kept the traditional choreography in Act 2 more or less intact, but has introduced some innovations in Act 1 which are not necessarily for the better.
Notable is the replacement of Giselle's mother by her father, who owns an art gallery and employs Hilarion as his staff. Thus Giselle's cottage has been replaced in this production by the art gallery, the ground floor of which can be seen by the audience and is a workshop with an easel. And the building opposite is now a bar with a pool table instead of Albrecht's cottage.
There is no bench in the middle of the stage where normally Giselle sits in the beginning of Act 1 and plays round with a flower which is meant to foretell the outcome of her love for Albrecht, because Quillere has excised this scene. Gone too is the mime scene of Giselle's mother foretelling Giselle's death which is not done instead by her father in this production. Unexpectedly, Giselle's first joyful solo full of 'ballone' and 'ballotte' jumps after her emergence from her cottage has been changed by Quillere into a solo for Albrecht - a lapse of judgement in my opinion. And I don't see why Albrecht cannot knock on Giselle's door as is customary, but has to throw pebbles at the wall like a rascal to attract Giselle's attention.
In this 1950s setting, there is of course no place for the Prince of Courland and his hunting party. Bathilde, Albrecht's fiancee, remains, and the adage of the peasant pas de deux is danced here by Bathilde and Albrecht, who does not have an attendant in the squire Wilfred. And it is the jealous Hilarion who later exposes Albrecht's infidelity to Giselle. The mad scene has been retained, but unfortunately most of the authentic mime has been substituted by a lot of repetitive emphatic emoting by Giselle who seems to be standing on one spot most of the time. There is even a heated confrontation towards the end of the mad scene, between Giselle and Bathilde who stare at each other angrily, befitting more Gamzatti and Nikiya in "La Bayadere"!
The costumes are a mishmash of different colours in this act. Each of the corps dancers wears a completely different outfit, which I think distracts from their dancing.
Act 2 more or less follows the original libretto. The sets consist only of an imposing bare tree trunk and Giselle's monumental tomb. The white backdrop at the back of the stage occasionally projects a video showing trees and other elements of nature as well as the menacing wilis. Due perhaps to the limited resources of this 45-strong company, the corps de ballet has been reduced to only 14. And Moyna and Zulma, the two lieutenants of Myrtha, have been cut. But above all, unexpectedly Myrtha turns out to be Bathilde.
The beginning of the act sees the repentant Albrecht, visiting Giselle's grave. He falls asleep, and Bathilde finds him and removes his fur-trimmed overcoat. And this whole wilis act becomes in effect his dream. At the end, after Giselle's final disappearance into her grave, Bathilde returns to cover Albrecht with the overcoat as he awakes.
The Marseilles company does not possess a strong classical style. The corps of wilis looked very ragged on the opening night. The dancers' arms seemed to be all over the place, and many corps women simply could not raise their working leg to hip level in their arabesques.
The title role was respectably danced by Francoise Maillard whose angular profile makes her look more severe than necessary. In Act 2, she was quite moving in her compassion for Albrecht in the pas de deux. Jean-Hugues Feray was an ardent Albrecht and a good partner for Maillard. Feray showed off his impressive technical bravura in the Act 2 pas de deux - each of his double tours en l'air ended cleanly in a fifth position, and his endless series of entrechats six in the coda was breathtaking.
In the improbable double role of Bathilde/Myrtha was Viviana Marrone. As Bathilde, Marrone looked quite beautiful and alluring. As Myrtha however, I found her dancing small-scaled. Her choppy staccato phrasing was monotonous and boringly hard-edged. Gilles Porte had the gaucheness as Hilarion.
After the two performances in Macau, the Ballet National de Marseille is going to tour Hong Kong this week with this "Giselle", and then Manila with two triple bills. Last time when the company toured Hong Kong in 1992, I saw them dance its former artistic director Roland Petit's version of "Sleeping Beauty". This time I would have liked to see the triple bill which the company danced in Shanghai the week before, in addition to this somewhat idiosyncratic production of "Giselle" which is somewhat lacking in romance and classical grandeur.