An innocent peasant girl, a prince in disguise, and an undead queen. Saccharine leitmotifs and the most enthusiastic use of triangle in any orchestral work. Giselle has it all. The National Ballet of Canada’s production – which opened at the Four Seasons Centre on June 15th – manages to wrap it up in a pretty little period package, as they tell the almost maddening story of a lying, cheating nobleman who seduces a sweet girl only to publicly abandon her and drive her to suicide. To the astonishment of modern women everywhere, this all ends in Giselle rising from the dead to save Albrecht’s contemptable life from the wrath of vengeful forest spirits and forgive him of all wrongdoing.
This staging of Giselle was choreographed by Sir Peter Wright with a score by Adolphe Adam, revised by Joseph Horovitz. The set and costume design by Tony award–winning designer Desmond Heeley deserves special mention. Heeley died on June 10th, just days before opening night. He designed seven sets for the company, including Giselle in 1970. Like his other work, this set was lush and full without being distracting. Heeley perfectly captured a sun-soaked, peaceful village. He then deftly transformed the stage into a cold, moonlit forest full of unsettling, unspoken pain. Heeley’s attention to detail and subtle ways of supporting the plot will be missed.
Giselle was masterfully played by Svetlana Lunkina in her company debut in the role. She manages to reach all the disparate qualities of this complex character with grace. Lunkina’s jumps and extensions are light and silky. At the start of her relationship with Albrecht, her girlish tricks elicit well-deserved giggles from the audience. She’s a charmer. Good thing The National snatched her away from the Bolshoi.
Harrison James, in his company debut in the role, makes a fine Albrecht and plays the part of a prince in peasant’s clothing well. The story, choreography and dancing drop enough hints to reveal Albrecht’s noble birth and moral corruption. From the first lie where he cast off his cloak to tearing petals off a flower to fix the old “he loves me, he loves me not”, Albrecht is bad news. Is Giselle’s going along with the flower fix just innocence or the willful suspension of disbelief required by everybody to fall in love with anybody?
Lunkina and James dance together beautifully. At the start of their courtship they maintain enough awkwardness to make their new relationship believable. During a lovely pas de deux, Lunkina produced one of those rare moments of performance magic. Her chaîné turns across the length of the stage toward James, arms outstretched with joy, evoked the unmistakable moment when someone submits to falling in love. Although so brief, this moment of emotional authenticity unfortunately outshone the later scene we all came for: Lunkina’s portrayal of Giselle’s descent into madness. Her technical mastery cannot be contested though. The sequence where Lunkina travels across stage hopping on a single pointe is done without any hint of struggle despite being one of the most challenging pieces of choreography in classical repertoire.
This production affords plenty of opportunity for dancing by dancers other than the principals. Giselle’s friends are a fun bunch who circle the village square in unison duets, periodically resting in picturesque formation. While the poses were always pleasing to the eye, the couples often struggled to get there, with visibly shaky arms and the men’s shuffling feet distracting the audience from their partners’ beautiful arabesques. Throughout the first act, the corps delightfully played peasants but suffered from imperfect lines due to subtly imprecise timing or dancers’ height differences that could have been better arranged, or both. However, in Act II, the corps redeemed themselves with the procession of Wilis across the stage, executed with an arresting strength and timing. It lived up to being one of the most haunting scenes of the romantic ballets.
At the end of the ballet, the possibilities and limitations of the plot and its execution show themselves. It remains a mystery explained by neither plot nor performance why Giselle doesn’t save her long-time suitor and fellow peasant Hilarion from the Wilis. The plot and its performance also fail to make less shocking her protection of Albrecht. In the first act, beyond his deception, there’s no hint of struggle when he chooses to return to his fiancée and noble life after taking all he could from Giselle. The repentance he shows in Act II is too little, too late from any sensible perspective. Perhaps if James had portrayed Albrecht in Act I differently, he would be at least somewhat sympathetic and Giselle’s reasoning comprehensible.
The undeserved redemption given to him by the ever-obliging female, Giselle, is rendered almost offensive to the modern audience given the evidence of the previous acts. At least the curtain falls on an Albrecht with his outstretched hand reaching for a better version of himself. Giselle is a beautiful, frustrating and faithful staging of a romantic ballet.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Giselle June 15 through 19, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.