Peter Wright’s production of Giselle has been going strong since 1985, and on its 540th appearance at the Royal Opera House it seems to have struck a particular chord with its cast.
Each principal has put their own mark on their character without ever doing anything that might seem out of step with Wright’s original vision.
The standout performance in terms of characterisation comes from Carlos Acosta as Albrecht. In Act One there is no suggestion that he is a powerful Count who simply sees it as an amusing pastime to play being a villager and toy with the affections of a humble peasant girl.
He whole-heartedly embraces the simple way of life, and has genuinely convinced himself of his love for Giselle. When her mother Berthe (Genesia Rosato) describes the ‘evil’ Wilis he shows no understanding that he is the problem and could be responsible for sending her to them.
What makes his performance all the more remarkable is that Acosta’s strength and muscularity might suggest that he would play to the alpha male elements of Albrecht’s character. In many other roles he has demonstrated equal levels of tenderness and sensitivity, but it is the choice to emphasise these traits in his present portrayal that proves both interesting and effective.
His interpretation of the role also works well alongside Tamara Rojo’s Giselle. The pair have an obvious chemistry, and when they dance together their movements appear highly similar in a literal sense. In their pas de deux the point of the foot and the angle of the raised arm in both dancers seem identical and create a pleasing unity. Rojo herself delivers a highly emotive performance, underpinned by some wondrously elegant dancing. Not only is she convincing as an actress – the sorrow she shows as her heart breaks and hair falls loose is deeply affecting – but her movements through space demonstrate incredible precision. She has that ability to affect time as she turns, whether that be in virtually slow motion or at breakneck speed.
In Act Two Rojo makes Giselle emerge from death a stronger character, and Acosta adjusts his own style so that their dancing feels as unified as in Act One, even though it is quite different in tone. Of course, here Giselle is ordered to dance with Albrecht to entice him away, and the numerous emotions going through their heads concerning love, hurt, punishment and forgiveness feel tangible, although everything is presented in a beautifully understated way.
The Wilis themselves prove a particularly formidable bunch as they cross over each other en masse, the thud of the same foot hitting the ground repeatedly adding to the tension in the night time air. Laura McCulloch’s dancing says much about the character of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Determination and defiance are products of the pain that she endured in life, and now manifest themselves as obsession and callousness towards innocent human life. It is interesting to see how Rojo in Act One and McCulloch at the start of Act Two can present equal levels of precision in their dancing, but create very different overall effects by virtue of their dissimilar characters. It is also notable that when Hilarion is dispatched Myrtha leaves it to her minions to do most of the dirty work, simply intervening coldly at key moments.
Gary Avis makes us feel for Hilarion as he seems to be on the ‘wrong’ side at every turn: losing out in love to Albrecht, being blamed for brandishing the sword by which Giselle died, brushed aside by Berthe when he wants to grieve for his loved one, and finally drowned by the Wilis simply for being a man.
John Macfarlane’s sets blend well with the costumes to create an autumnal atmosphere in Act One, the dresses of orange, mustard and green complementing a backdrop reminiscent of a Claude Lorrain canvas. In Act Two uprooted trees generate a more foreboding atmosphere from the start while the Wilis’ white dresses glisten and gleam in the cool moonlight. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, under the baton of Keon Kessels, is also in fine form, demonstrating a keen awareness of dramatic requirements as it tackles Adolphe Adam’s memorable score.