The Royal Ballet, Giselle

Posted: April 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet, Giselle

The Royal Ballet, Giselle, Royal Opera House, March 29

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in Giselle (photo Emma Kauldhar)

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in Giselle (photo Emma Kauldhar)

There is something soothing about seeing a classical ballet like Giselle. You don’t have to wonder what it’s about, the characters are defined in the narrative, the music and the rhythmic structure are familiar, the sequences haven’t changed and the form is known. What is exciting is the anticipation of a great interpretation, not just of the principal character Giselle but of Albrecht, Hilarion, Berthe and Bathilde, and in the second act the Queen of the Wilis. Apart from these major roles (on whom the clarity of the story depends), there are set pieces for the corps de ballet, most notably in the second act but also in the pas de six in the first. That is not to say the lesser characters — dukes and squires, leaders of the hunt and the villagers in the first act — are less important. There are no small roles; everyone has something to do in a narrative ballet and the success or failure of a performance is made up as much of all these small gestures and actions as it is of the interpretation of the principal dancers.

This evening the role of Giselle is danced by Natalia Osipova. I bought a ticket to see her interpretation because she is one of those rare talents with technique and dramatic sensibility who can bring a classical role to a new height of definition. Margot Fonteyn insisted technique is subservient to the ability of a dancer to tell the story. Osipova has both and she does not disappoint; from the moment she steps out of her cottage she is Giselle with all her charm, vitality and naivety expressed in her steps, her posture, gestures, and mime. She is evidently in love and allows that feeling of excitement to infuse her performance. Peter Wright, whose production this is, suggests the possibility that Giselle is of royal birth but illegitimate, a result of the droit de seigneur custom of the time. It would explain why she is different from the other village girls and why her mother wants to protect her from a similar fate to her own. Albrecht is a seigneur himself, son of a noble family that is used to hunting on the lands around the village. He has caught the attention of Giselle and even though he is betrothed to Bathilde, daughter of a local duke, he is drawn to her in spite of himself. This is the delicate balance facing Matthew Golding’s characterisation. Albrecht hasn’t really thought it all through so he has to dissimulate. Golding hasn’t thought it through either and doesn’t. He goes through the noble motions without letting us know what he is thinking or feeling and he fails to differentiate between his feelings for Giselle and those for Bathilde. He talks to them both with the same slow, vapid gestures. This is a major flaw in the production because Osipova has nobody to play off; she appears to fly out of the frame as she did (with the same partner) in Onegin because she is very much on her own; there is only half a conversation. Kristen McNally as Giselle’s mother Berthe is the only character to use her mime to consummate effect; after Giselle’s death the way she brushes Albrecht off her daughter is chilling. Thomas Whitehead as Hilarion also expresses his intentions in mime but, as Wright points out, he is destined to be the baddie and there are few redemptive aspects of his characterisation. Knowing the story, we tend to fill in the colours we don’t see, but it would be heartening to have characters who behave with a full palette and shake us out of our familiarity.

It is not only characterisation that is lacking this evening. Though generally of a high standard — this is after all The Royal Ballet — the level of technical excellence can be unexpectedly weak. In the prelude to tragedy in Act 1, the stage is filled with a joyous harvest festival celebration. The traditional peasant pas de deux becomes in Wright’s production a pas de six, an opportunity for junior talents to shine. But the men must have had a hard day in the fields because their dancing is ragged; they can’t land their double tours cleanly which sets off an uncertainty in subsequent steps. Osipova quickly dispels any uneasiness as she takes control of the stage as Giselle becomes unhinged by the shock of Albrecht’s duplicity. Golding could have hidden behind a tree (of which there are many) for all the emotional heft he brings to his unmasking. It is like watching a cinematic version of the ballet in which the camera is focused exclusively on the inner emotions and outer distress of the leading character.

As the first act sets up the basis for the second, any emotional weakness in the former will affect the redemptive quality of the latter. Since the cathartic effect of Giselle cannot be fully expressed by one character alone, we are left to watch Osipova from the edges of our seat as she dances on the edge of hers. In such an ethereal setting, the ability to fly is essential and one of Osipova’s qualities is her ability to suspend her shapes in the air, an extension of her musicality. Marianela Nuñez as Queen of the Wilis has an ethereal elegance of line on the ground but, like her band of fellow spirits, appears less free in the air; the flying exit of Wilis is marked more by propulsion than elevation. And while the corps is exquisite in its unity of design and intent, it is a shame that such a ghostly scene — pale moonlit woods in a milky haze — should be interrupted in the moving arabesque section by the earthy reminder of clunky pointe shoes.

All these detractions don’t seem to count much. There are endless curtain calls in front of the full house, cheers, applause (for Osipova and Nunez in particular) but I wonder what is being celebrated. Yes, it is a privilege to see Osipova in the role of Giselle, but in this 575th performance by The Royal Ballet one would hope for a more complete experience. The Royal Ballet may make money with its production of Giselle but it is short-changing the audience with this kind of unfulfilled performance.