Giselle: Fab or Fail?

Fans of Romantic masterpiece and audience favourite Giselle usually have a choice production against which they measure all others. Over here one of our  favorites is Sir Peter Wright’s critically acclaimed staging, which returns to Covent Garden early 2011. We were reminded of its virtues and the respect Sir Peter shows for his source material this summer when the Mikhailovsky and the Bolshoi brought their Russian Giselles to London. Despite very touching, wonderful performances by Irina Perren and Natalia Osipova in the title role, we missed some of the ballet’s key elements:

Left: Irina Perren as Giselle. Photo: Mikhailovsky Theatre ©. Right: Natalia Osipova as Giselle. Photo: Elliot Franks ©

In Russian productions Berthe’s pivotal mime scene is usually absent, meaning the villagers (whose clothes and gauzy light dresses are, by the way, too fancy to be credible) do not hear this important premonition: that her daughter Giselle’s obsession with dancing will lead to disaster; that Giselle will end up as a man-hating Wili. The way events are crammed and cut into Act 1 also mean harvest celebrations and loud merry-making take place by Giselle’s cottage while the nobles are having a snooze inside. There is also the major difference that Giselle – despite going mad – tends to die of a broken heart rather than commit suicide.

Alina Cojocaru as Giselle in Peter Wright's production of Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Giselle librettist Théophile Gautier supported the idea of the peasant girl dying from a wound inflicted by Albrecht’s sword and the original Coralli/Perrot version was developed accordingly. But in Russia suicide was thought problematic, so Petipa settled for death caused by a weak heart. This results in major inconsistencies in Act 2 as Giselle’s tomb lies in unconsecrated ground deep in the forest whereas a natural death would have meant a cemetery burial.

But perhaps the biggest issue we had with the ballet this summer was the way both the Mikhailovsky and Bolshoi characterise their Myrthas, who tended to behave gracefully like Sylphs rather than as one of balletsphere’s most menacing villains. All this Giselle nitpicking inspired us to create an approval Matrix à la NY Mag (or à la Wired). We  asked our Tweeps (Twitter friends) for some of their favorite and least favorite aspects of Giselle and have included answers into the chart below:

We want to hear about your ideal Giselle, so use the comment form below and tell us what you like/don’t like in this ballet.

With thanks to everyone who sent in suggestions & special thanks to @TightsAndTiaras @IanWhalen1387 @sarahp119 @annakardar @Bennet76 @VirnaSophia @bellafigural @ManInSeatD26 @webcowgirl @MarijnRademaker @catchip @AkikoTYO @Fleegull

Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. A self-confessed Alexei Ratmansky devotee, she has seen (and adores) 20+ of his pieces. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, and foreign languages.

12 Comments

  • September 25, 2012

    San Francisco Ballet in London

    [...] Granted, Ghosts had me pondering over Wheeldon’s tendency towards awkward poses and self-referencing, but this work also won me over for its effective layering of dances and powerful imagery, in particular during the ballet’s atmospheric final section, where Sofiane Sylve – who had also brought authority and allure to the central section of Liang’s Symphonic Dances – made me pine for her Myrtha. [...]

  • [...] the help of our Twitter followers, we assembled a new edition of our NY Mag-inspired approval matrix, this time with they key ingredients for a successful drama ballet. So let’s embrace the [...]

  • January 11, 2011

    Giselle

    [...] Skip if: You’re thinking Giselle is more FAIL than FAB [...]

  • September 19, 2010

    Flaflari

    I agree with virtually everything in this article! I prefer Wright’s version too (and Miss Cojocaru in it – she’s perfection in my eyes) but I also love the Cuban willis, they’re the only ones that look really menacing and make “Hilarion’s hilarious death” well, less hilarious.

  • September 15, 2010

    Cinderella

    I also prefer Sir Peter Wright’s staging at Covent garden. Not a fan of the ending changes and plot changes, such as Giselle dying of a broken heart as opposed to committing sucide. There is a clear difference!

  • September 14, 2010

    Anne Sanderson

    Dislike: fact that faithful, caring Hilarion dies horrible death & is shown sympathy by no-one.
    Like the Wilis’ entrance shunting forward.
    I remember seeing a masterclass given by Peter Schaufuss in Berlin where he said Albrecht should not so much seem to lift Giselle in act 2 as pull her back down to earth as she was floating away. Not so easily done! But I recently saw a v. good performance on Sky Arts 2 which at last seemed to do this. I’d have to look up whose it was.

  • September 14, 2010

    Henrik from Tightsandtiaras.com

    this is awesome!
    Albrects higher-than-music-kisses is definitely not the best part of the show :)
    I see you are fans of more “realistic” ballets, Giselle dying from stabbing herself rather than heart-ache – I have to agree. Come on people, you don’t die of a broken heart. You sit down and eat ice-cream. Imagine that :P

  • September 13, 2010

    Emilia

    Yes the Myrtha scare factor is definitely a biggie, last Royal Ballet revival we saw some really malevolent Myrthas on stage which is why the Russian softer & gentler versions didn’t quite do it for us…

    @Manhattnik – other than in RB/Peter Wright staging it seems Giselle also stabs herself (with a knife & WHILE Albrecht is holding it, no less!) in David Dawson’s version.

    @Naomi & Anna – we completely agree on the noisy pointe shoes, that should have gone into the matrix together with Eric’s mention of the dogs, I see we’re going to have to revise it!

  • September 13, 2010

    Anna Merrick

    Loving the grid girls – great idea ! Just wanted to add two things 1) totally agree with Naomi about the noisy pointe shoes it destoys the atmos 2) re those entrechats – recently I’ve been admiring the youtube clip of David Hallberg’s entrechats when he danced Albrecht opposite Natalia Osipova (been checking out youtube for anything of La Osipova ! ).

  • September 13, 2010

    naomip86

    I thought I had replied on twitter but seems I missed so I’ll add here.

    Like- The adagio of the 2nd act Pas de deux is one of the most beautiful white adagios in ballet, so quiet and serene, life and death united in a dance.

    One touching effect I saw was at ABT’s production, Giselle had no grave because she died in a strange manner, so Hilarion was collecting sticks to make a very humble grave for her and it was heartbreaking (and he was to be killed by willis)

    Not Like- I don’t like it when the willis pointe shoes are noisy like a marching band at the crossing scene, you don’t have to clap if the willis don’t look like spirits!
    And sometimes the peasant pas de deux are arranged into 6 or 8 dancers and those divertisments are simply boring.

  • September 13, 2010

    Manhattnik

    Love the grid. You girls are just too cool. Guess I’m too late to contribute (darn that real life), but I’d have to toss in the hunting party’s dogs. If they have them. For awhile ABT used these Borzois that were to die for. I’m surprised nobody mentioned dogs. I seem to recall the Bolshoi memorializing Monty Python with dead parrots. Or maybe that’s Bayadere?

    You want a Myrtha that taps her potential? Three words: Martine van Hamel. There’s an old VHS of her Myrtha in a Giselle with Makarova and Baryshnikov that’s worth checking out. For years, she owned the role at ABT, and she’s the gold standard as far as I’m concerned.

    About a decade ago, my first look at Irina Dvorovenko was her Myrtha. Talk about scary! You would not want to meet this gal in a dark alley, or race her to the last taxi on a rainy night in midtown.

    I’ll never forgive Kevin McKenzie for depriving the world of what would’ve been the Greatest Myrtha Ever, by never casting the brilliant Monique Meunier when she was at ABT. Meunier commanded the stage, and I still get shivers recalling her icy, sexy, scary Siren in Prodigal. What a loss.

    Although it makes dramatic sense for Giselle to kill herself, I’ve never seen it performed that way, ever. Is it otherwise in the UK?

    Years ago,

  • September 13, 2010

    Alexa Chipman

    I too have mixed feelings about Giselle— the SFB sets are spectacular, and the general ambiance of the ballet is always pleasing, but there are parts I dislike. I definitely agree that she should not have forgiven Albrecht and he aught to have died a horrible and well-deserved painful death.

    Ever since I was five and first saw the ballet, Myrtha has bothered me. She had the potential to become the best female villain in a ballet— strong and take charge with frightening powers— but most of the time she lilts about the stage half-heartedly trying to look pretty. I have seen many different stagings of the ballet, but none of them have even remotely tapped in to the Myrtha potential. Why?