(choreography by Coralli, Perrot, Petipa, staged by Patrice Bart and Eugène Polyakov)
Paris Opera Ballet
Palais Garnier, Paris, December 2006
by Marc Haegeman
copyright 2006 by Marc Haegeman
To our great pleasure the Paris Opera Ballet closed the year at the Palais Garnier with a run of “Giselle”, in the agreeably traditional staging by Patrice Bart and Eugène Polyakov. As becomes the company which gave us “Giselle” in 1841, the choreography of this version goes back, by way of Marius Petipa’s productions in Russia, to the Urtext by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, while dramatically it is equally as sound as may be expected.
Sets and costumes were reconstructed in 1998 after the exquisite period designs by Alexandre Benois which he created for the 1924 revival in Paris. The dim 2nd Act forest with its ruined church in the pale moonlight is about as Romantic as it gets. The orchestral score is based on the manuscript of Adolphe Adam preserved in the Opera library.
Contrary to the Paris Opera tradition no special scenic effects occur — no flying Wilis, “feux follets” or mechanically moving branches at the beginning of the 2nd Act — but I can’t say that’s entirely unwelcome. Giselle’s appearance in the 2nd Act is also staged pretty straightforward — she suddenly appears from behind a group of Wilis — and only in the final scene does she sink into her grave.
Most importantly, though, the company believes in it and performs with utmost conviction. Company dancing was excellent overall, especially by a well-rehearsed corps of Wilis in the 2nd Act. While a contemporary touch enlivens the characters, there is also enough respect for the tradition to remind us that Giselle is a 19th-century romantic ballet. The nobility looks as such and there is a strong sense of hierarchy running through both acts. Even when Giselle throws herself between Albrecht and Bathilde, she still curtsies first before the lady. Examples like this are indicative of the seriousness of the whole production.
Illnesses and injuries had turned the initial casting upside down and even the scheduled official farewell performance of danseur-étoile Laurent Hilaire was eventually cancelled. Nonetheless pure bliss was in the air that Sunday eve when Aurélie Dupont was seen opposite Nicolas Le Riche.
Aurélie Dupont once again revealed herself as one of the Paris Opera’s most superlative ballerinas. Impeccably danced, the character was lovingly established from the moment she walked through that cottage door, by a well-judged blend of clear mime and naturalistic acting, and a perfect understanding of the ballet’s fabric. The Parisian ballerinas seem to be coached to bring the mad scene with a minimum of effects and to arrive at the essence without sacrificing its complexity. No larger-than-life histrionics with arms and hair all over the place, but in its natural simplicity no less touching.
Yet what made Dupont’s Giselle really outstanding — and what should book her a firm place among the great Giselles of today — was her ability to create the emotion in the 2nd Act solely by the quality of her dancing. Totally transformed, otherworldly, there was just the radiance of her movement: uninterrupted ethereal lines, whispered arabesques, all ravishing delicacy — and it was utterly telling. Even in the final scene when she helped Albrecht up she remained unattainable, yet the passion was overflowing. Classical ballet at its most beguiling.
Much of the success of this evening was a result of the fine rapport between Aurélie Dupont and Nicolas Le Riche. Le Riche’s Loys/Albrecht looked far from innocent. He was in control from the beginning and even enjoyed playing with Giselle’s feelings. By the really sneaky way he plucked the petal from the flower that Giselle flung to the ground, one could sense even better he was out for a joyride without much further thought. In this version Giselle takes only one flower and drops it already after two petals, in fact making little sense of the “he loves me”, “he loves me not” test and leaving Loys very little choice but to continue and fake the test for her. Yet it is the way he plucks the third petal, unnoticed by Giselle, which tells everything of his intentions.
Le Riche’s Loys also seemed continually on his guard, looking very ill-at-ease among the villagers, as if he suspected everybody to unmask him. Until the very last moment — the confrontation with Bathilde, which was one of painful embarrassment — his attitude remained doubtful. What eventually saved him was his reaction to Giselle’s madness and death. His sorrow was genuinely heartbreaking to witness and in this case one could easily understand why Bathilde and her father walked off in the middle of Giselle’s mad scene. She knew Albrecht was hopelessly lost to her. It was also easy to understand why, in the 2nd Act, he was there in the middle of the night, filled with remorse, bringing once again flowers to Giselle’s grave.
It’s a strong portrayal throughout, although it’s bizarre Le Riche never noticed he wears his sword on his right hip when he arrives in the village but later grabs for it on two occasions as if it was on his left. His dancing was intense and powerful, his partnering exemplary.
In another cast I found Laëtitia Pujol (also with Le Riche) less engaging in the opening scenes. A sweet village girl, her smile rapidly turned into a frozen mask. Her mime wasn’t as clear and her dancing didn’t have the smoothness nor the precision of Dupont’s. As a result, her dramatic transformation during the mad scene was all the more surprising. It seemed as if Albrecht’s deceit pulled her out of a slumber and made her realize she would have to fight for him. She died like a falling leaf. Pujol’s best moments came in the 2nd Act. Less of a spirit than Dupont, she nonetheless excelled by her consistently lyrical dancing, again strongly partnered by Le Riche.
Marie-Agnès Gillot was, in her ultra-physical manner, a tremendous Myrtha. She conquered the stage with impeccable bourrées, rock-solid balances, clear beats and floating jumps in the final section. She possesses the technique and stamina to build excitement and her almost whispered entrance had turned into an explosion at the climax of the nightly rituals. Eleonora Abbagnato may be a more emotionally subtle Myrtha, but her dancing seemed at times a bit too laborious to wholly convince.
Stéphane Phavorin was a sympathetic and sincere Hilarion in the Dupont/Le Riche cast. On the other hand, Wilfried Romoli, whom I have seen in better doing, looked lifeless and dull — no competition for the Loys of Le Riche whatsoever.
The Peasant pas de deux in this staging adds a variation for eight girls after the two soloists’ variations. The solos are extremely hard and it took an Emmanuel Thibault to handle them with enough ease and fluidity. Paired with the always remarkable Myriam Ould-Braham the Peasant pas was about as fine as one could wish. In another performance, a very pristine quadrille Aubane Philbert made a promising debut.
Paul Connelly conducted the Orchestra of the Paris Opera with care, emphasizing Adam’s beautiful use of woodwinds.
Photos, all by Sébastien Mathé:
First: Aurélie Dupont and Nicolas Le Riche,
Second and third: Laëtitia Pujol and Nicolas Le Riche
Volume 4, No. 46
December 25, 2006
copyright ©2006 Marc Haegeman