Paris Opera Ballet in Chicago: Giselle

We caught the Paris Opera Ballet’s performance of Giselle at the Harris Theater last evening.

We’re not huge ballet fans, having only caught a few performances before, preferring instead the more free-form styles. But it was mesmerizing to watch the ballerinas pirouette so gracefully and lightly across the stage. Nevermind that the music sometimes seemed incongruous with the plot – it served the choreography perfectly. Nevermind that the plot was so fantastical… it was all incidental to the sublime dancing we saw on stage. Oh to be able to move with such seeming abandon and gravity-defying ease!

The Tribune’s review (which hilariously compares the ballet to wine):

Paris Opera Ballet’s spellbinding ‘Giselle’
Wednesday’s performance to be simulcast free at Pritzker Pavilion
June 27, 2012|By Sid Smith, Special to the Tribune

Champagne lovers with beer-bottle pockets regularly muster the resources for the $30 imported variety over the cheap domestic knockoff–the difference in taste is enormous.

But when they really splurge for vintage Dom Perignon, the differences are there, too, only nuanced, minute and nearly imperceptible. The steps to perfection get tinier as you near it.

That’s one way to sum up the experience of watching the Paris Opera Ballet’s stunning (and sold out) production of “Giselle” at the Harris Theater. We’ve seen our share of $30 efforts, all fine and good. This one, staged by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991, performed by clearly one of the best ballet troupes on the planet, is Dom Perignon, its subtle superiorities sublime. And they build magnificently: the fine Act I doesn’t quite prep you for the spellbinding Act II, a singular, unforgettable rendering of the great classic this very same troupe invented.

Assuredly much credit Tuesday goes to Isabelle Ciaravola, the lovely brunette cast in the title role. Her Act I is beautiful, precise and yet somehow not inspiring. “You want to fall in love with Giselle,” one ardent ballet supporter said at intermission, and, with Ciaravola, at first, you don’t, maybe because, despite unimpeachable form, her acting is solid but not great, and a lot of Giselle’s Act I allure is dramatic.

But Ciaravola is utterly transfixing in Act II, especially when enacting the series of slow-motion arabesques Bart and Polyakov employ to distinguish their Giselle. Sustaining uncanny poise, Ciaravola is lifted and held horizontal by her partner, her arched, overhead and almost grotesquely frozen arm carriage never surrendering an ounce of control or beauty.

Mathieu Ganio, as Albrecht, is striking from the outset, boasting sharp edges, crisply on view with every shift and turn, as if in a movie with his form outlined in glowing magic marker. His long face doesn’t make for a natural matinee hero–it monkeys with the plot a bit when the peasant lad Giselle scorns is more of a hottie. But Ganio combines statuesque height with swiftness and buoyancy, culminating in a breathtaking round of hops and entrechats in Act II, soaring toward the ceiling with the propulsion of a NASA rocket and the grace of a gazelle.

Hops, speed and stainless entrechats (those tricky intertwines of the feet) are hallmarks of this troupe. Early on, Ciaravola hops as if fueled by an inner motor, and Tuesday’s marvelous Myrtha, Marie Agnes Gillot, bounces as if partly made of mattress springs. (That’s after an uncanny mastery of Myrtha’s legendary bourrees, floating across the stage, with eerie magic.)

The size of the Harris stage worried some observers in advance of this super-sized production. But the two dozen Wilis fit fine in Act II, hovering in semi-circle like spectral judges at a ghostly Inquisition. The 35 or so peasants certainly filled Act I, and it’s a good thing the plot doesn’t call for a riot. Still, the troupe’s almost militaristic but immaculate attack in the peasant dancing came off thrillingly, and Charline Giezendanner and Fabien Revillon sparkled in the production’s deliciously detailed peasant pas de deux.

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