Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli Excel in The Royal Ballet’s Giselle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adolphe Adam, Giselle: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House Orchestra / Koen Kessels (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. 19.1.2018. (JPr)

Marianela Nuñez (Giselle) & Federico Bonelli (Albrecht) (c) Helen Maybanks

Giselle – Marianela Nuñez
Albrecht – Federico Bonelli
Hilarion – Bennet Gartside
Myrtha – Tierney Heap
Moyna – Anna Rose O’Sullivan
Zulme – Beatriz Stix-Brunell

Choreography – Marius Petipa (after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot)
Scenario – Théophile Gautier (after Heinrich Heine)
Production and additional choreography – Peter Wright
Music – Adolphe Adam (edited by Lars Payne)
Designs – John Macfarlane
Original lighting – Jennifer Tipton
Lighting design – David Fin
Staging – Christopher Carr

Giselle was premièred in 1841 in Paris; first staged in England the following year, and shortly thereafter was in the repertory of almost every ballet company in the world. The original choreography of Marius Petipa, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot remains largely intact to this day and Peter Wright’s 1986 production has only a few of his own additions. The music is very familiar, but this Giselle revival is significant for the new edition of Adolphe Adam’s score. Royal Ballet’s music director Koen Kessels considers in the programme how considerable research has been undertaken ‘to resolve numerous editorial questions concerning phrasing, articulation, dynamics, instrumentation and missing secondary voicing.’ The combined efforts of Kessels, the librarians of the Royal Opera House and Lars Payne (performer, researcher and music librarian at English National Ballet) has resulted in what the conductor considers is the ‘ideal blueprint’ for this run of performances.

One of the most pleasurable improvements to evenings of classical ballet in recent decades has been the care given to the music. In times past orchestras often played – even these most recognisable of scores – as if it was the first time they had seen the notes in front of them. Here Koen Kessels and his impeccable Royal Opera House Orchestra gave a refined and deeply Romantic account of the melodious Adolphe Adam score. Kessels revealed his consummate fine ear for rhythms, textures and the need to sensitively accompany those on stage.

In comparison to some of the other story ballets – such as the similar moonlit ‘white ballet’ La Sylphide – which I have seen a couple of times recently (review click here) – Giselle has considerable psychological depth and explores better all its the myriad themes. Act I shows an idyllic vision of peasant life, it is harvest time in a medieval Rhineland village; the peasant girl, Giselle, has won the heart of the nobly-born Albrecht, who disguises himself and lives among the villagers. Then Act II is inspired by a passage in Heinrich Heine’s On Germany, about Wilis or ‘young brides-to-be who die before their wedding day. The poor creatures cannot rest peacefully in their graves’ and rise at midnight to dance beguilingly in the moonlight. In both the village setting and forest graveside, Peter Wright and his designer John Macfarlane have created a real world, and tell a serious story which sustains this ballet’s status as an enduring classic.

A significant occasion will be celebrated at a future Giselle performance on 1 February when Royal Ballet Principal Marianela Nuñez celebrates 20 years with the company. Over the years she has danced the whole range of classical, dramatic and contemporary repertoire and won numerous awards. I have been seeing Giselle at Covent Garden since 1980 – including many wonderful performances from Lesley Collier, Sylvie Guillem and Miyako Yoshida – but I cannot remember any of them externalising everything Giselle was feeling – love, vulnerability, betrayal, despair and forgiveness – better than Nuñez. All she did was stylish, heartfelt and – more often than not – luminous throughout the ballet’s two acts. She brought her corporeal heroine to vivid life in Act I before realistically going out of her mind and committing suicide. As the ethereal Wili in Act II she was striving to save her deceitful lover, Albrecht, from death, and Nuñez clearly showed how dance can become a spiritual act. All her steps were imbued with a willingness to redeem him, as well as a devotion to dance itself. In both small detail and large Nuñez was simply extraordinary, radiant of footwork and port de bras, and beautifully consoling in the deeply affecting graveside duet.

The vastly experienced Federico Bonelli was a fine Albrecht and he replaced the previous advertised Vadim Muntagirov. He was the ideal foil for Nuñez and the most solicitous of partners. He also proved himself to be a splendid physical actor. He ideally conjured up a betrothed playboy who was aristocrat, hedonistic, arrogant, though ultimately loyal. In Act I as Albrecht begins to fear discovery, and his shame and guilt intensify, Bonelli clearly shows his character’s discomfort. In Act II he made an equally convincing noble martyr and his suffering eyes and mulitple entrechat-six will stay in my memory for a long time.

There were superb vignettes from, amongst others, Christopher Saunders as a bluff Duke who seemed peeved by all the goings-on distracting him from the hunt and Bennet Gartside, as the exasperated Hilarion, who almost chewed the scenery with his outbursts over his love rival, Albrecht. Praise too for Elizabeth McGorian’s mimetic skills as Berthe, Giselle’s devoted, protective mother. Yasmine Naghdi and Alexander Campbell led a most exuberant pas de six. Tierney Heap contributed a superb Queen Myrtha, regal yes, but someone who tempered implacability with a faint trace of the humanity that once ran through her veins. Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Beatriz Stix-Brunell gave exemplary accounts of her lieutenant Wilis, Moyna and Zulma. To my eyes the ensemble work in Act II was as faultless as it could possibly be, with perfect and suitably haunting – yet perversely strangely beautiful – synchronisation from the ghostly Wilis.

This was a remarkable evening in so very many ways.

Jim Pritchard

To view the full list of productions at the Royal Opera House for the 2017/18 season click here.

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