A great roar greeted Sylvie Guillem's Giselle with the Ballet of La Scala, Milan, at its London début. What she has done is to keep the familiar story (unlike other reformers of the classics, Mats Ek, Matthew Bourne, Christopher Gable, and the like) but give it an entirely new life and look, with choreography that nicely balances the traditional and her own variants on that.
In Act I – real life, betrayal and Giselle's death of heartbreak – we have moved from the usual village green populated only by regimented grape-pickers, to a series of streets or squares in a busy village, with much varied activity and a populace where individuals momentarily stand out: a drunk, some girls making fun of Giselle's careful mother, a lecherous soldier and an acquiescent washerwoman.
Paul Brown's designs put the action probably about 100 years ago. A simple revolving wall moves locations around and later opens out into a large hall. Guillem gets her own character amicably involved with her neighbours. She has built up the rivalry of Albrecht and Hilarion, but there is scope for more surprise when the duplicitous Albrecht meets his noble fiancée Bathilde. In fact, Massimo Murru's Albrecht, an able but not distinguished interpretation, is sometimes eclipsed by Francesco Ventriglia's Hilarion.
Act II – ghosts, repentance, forgiveness – is even better, except for the daft idea of big rocks that first clutter the stage, then hang implausibly above it. But the setting otherwise is just right. Guillem has made real sense of the spectral Wilis – jilted girls returning from death for the dancing they were denied in life. Their bridal dresses, and the way they group in circles, embody the original concept perfectly. Surprisingly, she keeps their long sequence of hops in arabesque, line by line, but it works. And Hilarion's death is wonderfully well done.
Guillem's Giselle is everything we expect from her, and her greatest moment, as producer and performer, is the very end: utter simplicity as she disappears slowly, gently back into darkness, leaving the distraught Albrecht alone on his knees. The Scala company give devoted support, with one outstanding performance in a small role, Andrea Boi's exasperated mixture of arrogance and deference as Wilfred.
Adolphe Adam's music can rarely have sounded better, with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by David Garforth in his own arrangement. But it is the sweet lyricism of Act II that chiefly appeals as part of an imaginative new reading that gives the ballet freshness and truth.
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