Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Giselle (1841) [113:00]
Choreography by Marius Petipa, after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot
Production and additional choreography by Peter Wright
Natalia Osipova - Giselle
Carlos Acosta - Prince Albrecht
Thomas Whitehead - Hilarion
Johannes Stepanek - Wilfred
Deirdre Chapman - Berthe
Christopher Saunders - Duke of Courland
Christina Arestis - Bathilde
Hikaru Kobayashi - Myrtha
Elizabeth Harrod - Moyna
Akane Takada - Zulme
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Boris Gruzin
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, January 2014
LPCM 2.0, DTS digital surround
Picture format: 16:9 anamorphic
Region code: all regions
DVD 9, NTSC
OPUS ARTE OA1144D DVD [113:00 (ballet) + 10:00 (features)]
"...the title role is the most emotionally exhausting of all parts in the repertory of classical ballet, for that character is to the danseuse what Hamlet is to the actor. It is imperative that the interpreter of Giselle shall be not only a dancer equipped with a first rate technique, but one able to mime moments of comedy and tragedy; moreover, she must be able to act while dancing." (Cyril W. Beaumont, Complete book of ballets [London, 1937], p. 165.)
"The ballet is incredible and Giselle is my favourite role. For me it's constantly changing and developing ... This is the most important role in any ballerina's career." (Natalia Osipova, interviewed on this DVD.)
Giselle has proved almost as popular on DVD and Blu-ray as it has in the theatre. Virtually every ballet company worth its salt seems to have felt the need to immortalise its own interpretation. That includes the Royal Ballet, for this new disc now complements a much praised 2006 performance of its familiar, long-standing Peter Wright production. That earlier version features the company's stars at that time Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg and is still on sale (DVD OA0993D and Blu-ray OABD7030D, reviewed here).
Taking a selection of other desirable recorded performances from my shelves, I would not want to be without the Alessandra Ferri/Massimo Murru/Teatro alla Scala version from 1996 (Arthaus Musik 100 061, see here). The Milan company’s 2005 production that starred Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle (Arthaus Musik 107 289, see link to the Paris Opera Ballet review below) is also a highly desirable one. Right up there too is the 2006 Laëtitia Pujol/Nicholas Le Riche/ParisOpera Ballet performance that I reviewed on its Blu-ray release (Arthaus Musik 108 049, see here where it's considered in tandem with the 2005 La Scala performance). I am also very impressed with an outstanding account from Svetlana Lunkina/Dmitri Gudanov/Bolshoi Ballet, recorded in 2011, that is not only very well danced but looks absolutely stunning on Blu-ray (BelAir Classiques BAC474). Finally, the 1968 Carla Fracci/Erik Bruhn/American Ballet Theatre production (Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4069) is also well worth considering, even though it polarises opinion: shot and edited as a feature film, it scores hugely by virtue of its sheer pace and dramatic verve - which I love - but also alienates many balletomanes by its deliberate decision not to film dance in the conventional way.
So, in a very competitive field, how does this new DVD fare?
One very obvious point in its favour is the presence in the title role - often regarded as the supreme test for a classical ballerina - of former Bolshoi Ballet superstar Natalia Osipova. In the eyes of her many admirers, she is quite possibly the world's leading female dancer right now, and there is certainly no doubt that her arrival as a Principal in autumn 2013 was a major coup for the Royal Ballet.
No longer almost invariably partnered by fellow Russian superstar Ivan Vasiliev, whose engaging but stage-stealing flashiness sometimes disproportionately hogged the audience's attention, Ms Osipova appears to have thrived on the new challenges offered by moving out of the Bolshoi's comfort zone. As Cyril Beaumont's observation at the head of this review suggested, Giselle ultimately stands or falls on the ballerina dancing the title role. This production thereby triumphantly stands - and the new DVD will act as an effective calling-card for anyone who hasn't yet become aware of Ms Osipova's outstanding talents.
Giselle requires the ballerina taking the title role to meet the challenge of inhabiting three separate personae. Firstly, there’s the naive peasant girl who's in love for the first time. Then we encounter the betrayed fiancée driven by betrayal and grief to a heart attack/fatal insanity/suicide – different producers offer their own choice, but Peter Wright goes for the suicide option. Finally, the dancer taking the title role must become an ethereal and ghostly - but ultimately reluctant - wili. Dancers sometimes do well at one or two of those personifications but are unable to carry off the third one convincingly. I've certainly, for instance, watched more than a few less-than-convincing interpretations of the comparatively brief, though dramatically vital, grief/madness episode that brings the first Act to its tragic close.
Natalia Osipova's acting successfully encompasses a wide emotional range, so that she is equally assured and convincing in every facet of the role. She possesses one priceless natural asset: her naturally pale skin helps make convincing characters of both the sickly girl with a weak heart in the first Act and a bloodless shade in the second. She can also act, as is clear from the range of feelings that she communicates as the emotionally confused girl of Act 1 - a portrayal that's triumphantly climaxed in its last few minutes as both her face and body convey her utter distress and misery as her world collapses around her.
Ms Osipova's technique is also, as one might expect, of the highest quality: from her very first entrance, lightly skipping across the stage (5:31-6:14), she holds the audience's attention in the palm of her hand. Her skilled virtuosity is apparent as she races manically around the set at the end of Act 1 and she certainly knows how to pull off more than a few crowd-pleasing effects where her dazzling footwork simply electrifies the audience (39:57-40:09 in Act 1 and 75:52-76:25 in Act 2). She is not, though, a selfish performer and she appears to enjoy a genuine rapport with her partner Carlos Acosta.
His physique and demeanour ensures that Mr Acosta offers a more masculine interpretation of Albrecht than we sometimes encounter. He certainly has strength and power to spare when he dances this particular role and I was more consistently impressed by his technique on this occasion (see 97:45-98:42, for example) than I was by his rather patchy Basilio in Don Quixote (see here). As a long-time Royal Ballet star, Acosta possesses an aura of authority on the Covent Garden stage that is particularly well suited to this role. Thus, even though the villagers, with the exception of the perspicacious Hilarion, may be fooled for almost all the first Act, we can see at a glance that the way that "Loys" carries himself indicates that he is, in reality, a cut or five above the rest of them. Interpreting Albrecht, he eschews the caddish in favour of a slowly but genuinely developing affection for the girl - admittedly light-hearted, though well-meaning, to begin with but deepening as the Act goes on. In much of the first Act wooing, he is aided immeasurably by his familiar infectious grin and a cheeky chappie charm that wins both Giselle and the audience over to his side.
Dancing the role that makes up the third side of the love triangle is Thomas Whitehead as the jealous gamekeeper Hilarion. He, too, makes a very positive impression, though I missed the momentary shock found in most other productions where he appears in mid-stage seemingly from nowhere to break apart the lovers' embrace at the climax of the Act 1 peasants' galop. On this occasion, the dancers are grouped – and the camera placed - in such a way that we can see Hilarion coming up from the rear of the stage well in advance. Any children watching this DVD will, I'm sure, be yelling out at that point "He's behind you!"
Of the other main roles, I enjoyed Deirdre Chapman's take on Giselle's mother Berthe, who is on this occasion accorded the Act 1 "there's something nasty in the forest" mime episode (18:27-20:02). It's sometimes omitted by other companies. Initially I was somewhat disconcerted by the fact that Ms Chapman looks rather too young to be the heroine's parent, but, as the booklet notes explain, producer Peter Wright chooses to imagine that she might have suffered the droit de seigneur at a young age - and that aristocratic parentage might thereby also "explain", he suggests, why Giselle's dancing skills are distinctly more up-market than those of her fellow villagers.
I also admired the accomplished dancing of Hikaru Kobayashi as the vengeful Myrthe, the queen of the wilis. Unfortunately, she has a hard act to follow after Marianela Núñez's superb performance on the DVD of the Royal Ballet's 2006 performance, for that was not only beautifully danced but communicated Myrthe's purposeful and menacing implacability more effectively. Myrthe may well be dead, but - like the equally deceased Giselle - she still has a personality. While Ms Kobayashi exhibits the appropriate glacial demeanour, it's not just enough to avoid smiling: as Ms Núñez showed, when a dancer willingly seizes the opportunity, there's rather more to Myrthe than that.
The usual peasant pas de deux - a frequent showcase for up-and-coming young stars of the future - is replaced here by a pas de six that is very well executed. As usual, radiant Royal Ballet stalwart Yuhui Choe is particularly delightful, and she is well partnered on this occasion by Valentino Zucchetti whose solo opportunities are also attractively executed. Variously portraying horny-handed - if rather nattily clothed and light on their feet - sons of the soil or supernatural girls-gone-bad, the corps de ballet offers first-class support, whether in their vigorous peasant cavortings or in the elegant and precisely coordinated footwork of the wilis. So does the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, recorded in fine detail by Opus Arte's accomplished engineers. At times, conductor Boris Gruzin adopts a marginally more relaxed approach than he did when he conducted the Royal Ballet's 2006 performance. Both approaches successfully fulfil the objective of supporting the on-stage action and are expertly achieved.
Peter Wright's production - with its stage designs recently modified by a bit of judicious tree surgery so as to create more space on stage - has long been justifiably lauded and has been expertly captured on this recording by video director Ross MacGibbon. I did think that the stage was rather brightly lit for Act 2 and, as a result, that it was not as atmospheric as it might have been. I certainly prefer an over-bright stage, though, to one where dim illumination and over-generously applied swirls of dry ice mean that we can't see the all-important footwork at all. In all this, my DVD offered a very fine picture, so I can only imagine that a Blu-ray version of this performance would offer a very real treat indeed. The disc comes, incidentally, with a couple of useful extra features that together add an extra 10 minutes or so of background material, with contributions from stars Osipova and Acosta, producer Peter Wright and members of the corps de ballet.
Until now, if pressed for a single version of Giselle, I'd probably have gone for the 2011 Bolshoi performance. It's simply stunning to look at in its Blu-ray presentation and it has, in Svetlana Lunkina, another superbly accomplished interpreter of the title role. While Dmitri Gudanov may lack Carlos Acosta's innate charisma and sheer virility, he is certainly a fine dancer, while Vitaly Biktimirov gives the most compelling performance of Hilarion that I've seen. As is usually the case at the Bolshoi these days, production values are very high.
This new Opus Arte disc now joins that Bolshoi version at the very top of the list. Indeed, if its Blu-ray incarnation - which I haven't had the pleasure of seeing - is of the same quality that BelAir Classiques accorded to the Bolshoi recording, this Royal Ballet performance may well sweep the board as the new Giselle of choice.
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