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Paris Opera Ballet

'Giselle'

by Cassandra

July 7-9, 2003 -- Palais Garnier, Paris

"Giselle" was first produced in Paris 162 years ago and last week I travelled to the city of its birth to enjoy a couple of performances in the Paris Opera Ballet’s current run.

On the evening of Monday 7th the performance was preceded by three members of the company coming on stage to inform us of the current industrial action taking place at theatres throughout the country and which the dancers supported. The applause throughout the theatre clearly indicated that the audience shared the dancers' sympathies.

The Paris production is by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov with costumes and 1924 décor by Benois. This was a fairly conventional production with no big surprises, though the exceptionally busy corps de ballet of the first act seemed at times intrusive and the playing of Hilarion by Wilfried Romoli (on both nights) was a much angrier and less sympathetic reading than is usually seen. On the plus side, Giselle’s mother didn’t have any cuts to her mimed scene of Giselle’s likely fate.

The Giselle that night was Laetitia Pujol, a young dancer of infinite promise, who had made her Paris debut in the role only a few nights before. Albrecht was that London favourite, Nicholas Le Riche. The Paris Opera Ballet doesn’t give bad performances, only varying degrees of good and this was a very good performance. In her Giselle costume I was very much struck by how much Pujol resembled Antoinette Sibley in the same role, as physically they are rather similar. Pujol’s Giselle is a carefree village girl experiencing all the joys of first love, and the object of her affections, Le Riche, passes so effortlessly as a fellow peasant that it is easy to understand her lack of suspicion. As Ms. Pujol is comparatively new to the role she is as yet unable to give a totally rounded interpretation and suffers from looking too much like a modern girl in the ballet, just as Mr. Le Riche resembles a modern boy. In the mad scene, Giselle looked merely hysterical rather than insane, so that her eventual death came almost as a surprise.

The second act opens with a group of men playing dice in the moonlit glade before being frightened off by some wilis that I’m afraid I found a little comic looking. This second act brought a degree of concern as Parisian arms are starting to look a little less beautiful than I remember them.  Something I chose to ignore assuming it was an off night when I saw "Paquita" a few months ago, now begins to look like a worrying trend.

Of course for the principals this is the act where the virtuosity begins and both Pujol and Le Riche have little difficulty with the technical challenges though I noticed a spot of mis-timing in some of the double work. Pujol already has an understanding of the romantic style and eschews pointing her toes at the ceiling but I must admit to some disappointment that Le Riche chose to dance the “Nureyev solo” consisting of repeated entrechat six rather than the more familiar variation. The audience loved it though and roared their approval.

Pujol and Le Riche were to have repeated their roles on the following night and as a rare treat, the extraordinary Emmanuel Thibault was scheduled to dance in the peasant pas de deux, but fate dealt me a double whammy as, first, Thibault was inexplicable pulled from the role and, then, industrial action meant that the entire performance was cancelled.

On Wednesday evening I returned to the Opera Garnier to find the steps filled not with foot-weary tourists, but police with riot shields! Another first in my ballet going career. This night had the fans out in droves as Elisabeth Maurin, who was dancing Giselle, retires from the Opera this year and her many admirers were there to pay homage to her unique talent. As Giselle, Maurin was simply exquisite, a gentle questing soul that one felt instinctively was destined for tragedy. Her Albrecht was the elegant Kader Belarbi, tall, dark and handsome, and a patrician to his fingertips.   No wonder Giselle had fallen in love as the contrast with her would-be lover Hilarion couldn’t have been greater.

This Giselle sees no evil in the world, as all things to this innocent girl are pure; therefore, the shock of the deceit perpetrated by Albrecht hits her like a thunderbolt, especially as her lover greets Bathilda with far more familiarity and far less formality than we usually see. Her madness is totally convincing and there was an awful moment when I saw in her eyes that she both understood that she was going mad and that she was about to die – chilling.

In the second act Maurin takes on the fragile appearance of a 19th century lithograph as her grief transforms into compassion for her errant lover. Belarbi matches her total immersion in the role with his sorrowful repentance, their duets becoming a poem of regret. Although technically Maurin was barely up there with the best, emotionally she was in a class of her own.

It was a performance to cherish; a reminder of how great artists can uplift the soul.

Edited by Jeff

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