There has always been a deftness in the productions of Giselle by the Royal Ballet, a clarity of vision from choreographer Sir Peter Wright. Originally staging his initial take on Marius Petipa’s rendition of this paramount romantic ballet over thirty years ago in 1985, his highly-polished version has become ubiquitous as one of the company’s premier productions, a flagship performance in their repertory. Returning to the stage of the Royal Opera House for the first time since 2014, Wright’s production carries with it the weight of expectation after an acclaimed run that saw wild plaudits for its latest iteration.
In Giselle, the tragic story of the title character and her intervention into the near-death of her suitor as a spirit, there lies a duality at the core of its two acts; a traditional love story dressed in the trappings of both the ordinary and the extraordinary, anchored by an earthliness and yet released by the gothic supernatural. For all the horrors that unfold wretchedly to its players, there is never the sense of dislocation from the emotional interplay; the stark intimacy at the heart of Giselle is painfully apparent, from the shyly tentative first steps of young love through to the grieving desperation that drives the performance to its conclusion.
|The Wills of Act II, Giselle, at the Royal Opera House. Courtesy of Bill Cooper.|
The emotional weight hinges upon the performances of Iana Salenko’s Giselle and Steven McRae’s Albrecht, the two lovers though whom death cannot part them. Of the two, McRae is the stronger performer; in Act I, he plays Albrecht as a maverick of a young man, emotionally immature and unaware of the potential repercussions his infatuation will create. He injects an innocent eloquence to the character, one that serves as a buffer to his deceitful nature, and convincingly renders his inevitable collapse as that of a man torn between his unscrupulous moral code and his realisation of consequences he did not intend. It’s a less suave take than previous renditions, more playful and endearingly youthful, a trait apparent in his Act II performance as he slowly matures through his desperation into a man aware of his own failings during his trial by spirit and dance.
In contrast, Salenko’s transition from timid romancer to struggling spirit never fully realises the emotional arc it should. In Act I, she possesses the character with the feminine charm of a young girl in love with a delicacy and poise that is achingly pretty, a fine interpretation that plays well off McRae. As it progresses, Salenko successfully peels back the layers to reveal a confidence that grows as she becomes more attached to Albrecht, and later his betrothed Bathilde, before she makes the crushing realisation that she’s been toyed with. In the closing motions, the emotional breakdown of Giselle is underplayed by Salenko – but its ultimate pay-off is extraordinarily played and resoundingly heart-rending.
|Leads Steven McRae and Iana Salenko, in a previous production|
of The Two Pigeons. Courtesy of the Royal Opera House.
Her Act II performance though fails to convey her inner struggle between the vengeful Wills of which she is now part of, and her relationship with Albrecht. Whilst McRae brings a vast emotional range in his performance, from pleading desperation to guilt-riddled resignation, Salenko still feels like the Giselle of old. This is indeed part of her story – but despite having the ethereal presence required, her performance is occasionally too blunt as the ghostly spirit. It is a role that lends itself to subtlety, but Salenko struggles to land the hidden depths of drama, despite a fine acrobatic routine. A strong performance; but one that in the second act, never rises to the guileless heights of the first.
Both acts are sumptuously designed, in particularly the ghostly-woodland-wreck of Act II, that creates a haunting tone to every movement, in particular the Royal Ballet’s Wills under their Queen Helen Crawford, whose pas de six are delectable. Valentino Zucchetti’s Hilarion was loveable if not overly scene-stealing, and a dominantly superb Kristen McNally as Giselle’s mother Berthe was the figurative highlight of Act I away from the would-be-lovers interplay. But perhaps the true star of the show was conductor Barry Wordsworth, who delivered a maestro performance with the baton, with emotion pouring from the beautiful score under his hands. Aching, breath-taking, and tragically brilliant – there is no doubt that with Giselle, and in particular McRae, The Royal Ballet have once again found something special.