Spiritless Sylphs, But a Fine New James
By Marc Haegeman
With part of the company on tour in Spain and several étoiles non available, yet mindful of the bicentenary of Marie Taglioni, the Paris Opera Ballet confidently concluded its 2003/2004 season with a revival of "La Sylphide," Pierre Lacotte’s reconstruction of Taglioni’s most famous creation. Debatable in its degree of authenticity, but as an updated exercise in romanticism a sure-fire crowd-pleaser and, as these performances proved once again, a formidable test for the company at all levels, Lacotte’s "Sylphide" is a ballet that does not stand light treatment.
The production, looking grand on the stage of the Palais Garnier, has the asset of the reconstructed sets from Pierre Ciceri, whose evocative decors combined with the elaborate stage machinery made the glory of the Opera in the first decades of the 19th century. The appearance of the sunlit forest and the flying sylphs in the 2nd Act is particularly enchanting.
The current Parisian ballerinas—at least in the two performances I attended—seem to share a rather human image of the main character and are basically too corporeal. Both Delphine Moussin, who made her debut as the Sylph in this run, and Aurélie Dupont were women clearly from this side of the world, as much by their dancing as by their manner. Moussin’s Sylph projected a lot of feminine warmth and natural elegance, if little else, while Dupont, albeit technically more comfortable, seemed to mistake ambiguity for appearing by turns cool and aloof, then again studied and mannered. (This lack of spontaneity can be a serious letdown in Dupont’s case.) Perhaps they don’t think of it this way, but neither one of them was able to find innocence in the character. The choreography might be partly to blame—although previous runs have proven otherwise—but neither one appeared really light or soft. Even if Dupont gave us some marvellous bits of dancing as only she can, she too lacked the nimbleness and fluidity to be completely convincing.
James was by contrast most admirably portrayed by both Benjamin Pech (with Moussin) and the new étoile Mathieu Ganio (with Dupont). Pech’s James was a strong, at times forceful youth, nicely detailed and vigorously danced. We believed in him and in his plight. Ganio continues to pleasantly surprise after his unexpected nomination as étoile following his debut as Basilio in Nureyev’s "Don Quixote" last May—hardly twenty and jumping from sujet to the top of the hierarchy in no time. Tall, lean and handsome, Ganio is a dancer of great promise. A sympathetic and graceful presence, and looking quite mature for his age, he danced with a kind of impetuousness and abandon one would love to see more in male dancing and which suited this particular role extremely well. His soaring leaps and powerful attack, especially apparent in the 2nd Act which Lacotte turned into a dance marathon for both protagonists, were a joy to watch. On a dramatic level Pech’s James was undoubtedly more complete and the genuinely optimistic; Ganio didn’t have the dark, pensive attitude of his older colleague. Yet, on the strength of this performance Ganio is a name to look out for.
Madge is, it seems, invariably portrayed by men in the Paris Opera production, something which I find regrettable. Not that the role is a very subtle one in Lacotte’s version. With this enormous dark coat and long-haired wig Madge is all too obvious a butch transvestite, towering over everybody, and making it extra hard to believe in her as a witch. Jean-Marie Didière, a fine actor, did his utmost to give the character a face and was preferable to an overacting Richard Wilk, who inflated the role even more. There is never any doubt that this Madge will have the final word.
Outside of the principal characters, none of these two performances was particularly strongly or indeed interestingly cast. As was obvious several young corps members and demi-soloists were given a chance in bigger roles. Unfortunately they didn’t ameliorate the overall level.
One exception was the promising Dorothée Gilbert as Effy in the Moussin/Pech performance. Effy gets a bigger break here than from Bournonville, with a lot of dance passages in the 1st Act, and is even allowed by Lacotte to put on her pointe shoes. Sujet Dorothée Gilbert brilliantly took every opportunity offered, completing a character that seemed destined more than anything to marry James. After her, Mélanie Hurel—who danced the Sylph on other dates as well— didn’t stand much of a chance and even appeared faceless by comparison.
Lacotte’s version has its own peasant pas de deux, a pure divertissement number in the 1st Act. On both occasions the taxing pas de deux was tentatively done, with dancers who often executed the steps as in a school performance. Mathilde Froustey and Grégory Gaillard still resembled two graduates overeager to please their audiences, while the dancing of Isabelle Ciaravola and Gil Isoart—who also took the leading roles on other occasions in this run—lacked definition.
Allowances can be made for the season nearing its conclusion, but I have seen the Paris corps de ballet in better shape than on these nights. The sylphides, especially in the 2nd Act, strangely missed the plastic cohesion as well as the lightness and fluidity seen in previous performances. Everything was handled in a professional way, but I found the spirit totally absent.
The Paris Opera filmed the Dupont/Ganio cast for future DVD release—the originally scheduled Manuel Legris, who is by far the best Parisian James, regrettably came down with an injury. It will be great to have an early performance of Ganio preserved this way, yet bearing in mind that these films are supposed to highlight the strength of a company, it might have been an ill-chosen moment.
Photos, both by Icare, of Aurélie Dupont and Mathieu Ganio.