Teatro alla Scala Ballet
Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, CA
July 14, 2001
The concept of this version seems to be to attempt to clothe and set the ballet in a more realistic framework. No totally happy peasants these, and no idyllic village. This village is more a town with its drunkard, it's laundresses, workers and children. These are peasants in dull workaday clothes, carrying baskets and bundles; mundane, everyday, mud in the streets reality.
A severe wall designed by Paul Brown, with a door at one end and a larger square opening at the other bisects the stage. Occasionally the wall rotates, but only to show a window on the other side. There seems no real reason for it to rotate. This set effectively cuts the dance space in half, restricting amplitude of movement and putting everything on the same plane. Depth of perception is lost.
Drab, drab is all before us. Costuming designed by Paul Brown is in shades of brown, black and tan. Pointe shoes are covered with dark brown over the ankle stockings to simulate boots, I suppose. One can have classical pointe shoes and pointe work or one can have boots, but in my opinion, there cannot be both.
Is this realism? Real peasant ethnic dress is very colorful. This is a wine festival and surely at such a time the wonderful embroidered shirts, skirts, hats and laces would be displayed. The eye longs for color.
Additionally, the dim lighting designed by Pascal Noel, the shallow stage, and distracting village characters hamper the entire first act. A perpetuum of motion, but a lack of dancing. The mad scene takes place within a claustrophobic set of wooden walls. Are we indoors? Yet, with all the problems, Sylvia Guillem acted out her madness well.
Like life imitating art, I hoped during the 35 minute intermission that the second act would redeem the first. It did and it didn't. Gone the rotating wall, we are now in a forest glade. Though Myrtha is well danced by Beatrice Carbone, this production gives her no opportunity to introduce us to her severe character and her control of her Wili world. She seems one of many rather than a malevolent ruler.
One of my favorite moments in Giselle's second act is the crescendo culminating in traveling voyagés by the assembled Wilis as their lines crisscross. I found the corps de ballet executing this difficult pas heavily. The appeared weighted, and in reminding me of gravity, lost their mystique.
Costuming for this act was in various versions of wedding dresses, all at an unfortunate ankle length. This effectively negated any display of line and curve. In croisé positions, visibility of movement was zero. No curve of attitude, no open line of arabesque. Guillem's batterie, usually a technical highlight of a ballerina's Giselle, was abbreviated and inhibited by the costuming. A severe loss.
Massimo Murru's Albrecht was believable and well done, however, much was lost as he was clothed in black trousers against a dark forest gloom. The princely attribute of his alter ego was subverted by his costuming, he was given no opportunity.
And yet, when the wiles float off in the mist of morning, and Giselle pauses and returns for a final farewell to Albrecht, it was a most effective and poignant moment.
Altogether many problems exist with this production. The entire prologue set behind a scrim and poorly lit was lost to view and understanding. In staging the flower petal scene against a side wall, this effectively cut the scene off from the view of the audience on that side of the theater. The very brief peasant pas de deux was cleanly danced by Antonino Sutera, and shakily danced by Lara Montanaro.
Giselle requires of us a leap of faith, a suspension of reality. However, this version of Giselle tries to give us reality and then asks us to believe in magic. One cancels out the other. Love may triumph, but the necessary breath of magic does not.
Initially, the most noticeable difference between Guillem's Giselle and the more traditional productions reveals itself in the sets and costumes. Disposing of the typical left stage shed and right stage home, Paul Brown opted for one main wall, cumbersomely situated in the center of the stage. Every time the scene changed from one side of the house to the other, the wall whirred noisily around in a circle, interrupting the music. The introduction of an industrial noise reminds us all that we are not in Giselle's village but in the 21st century. This is use of technology does not provide for a fully enjoyable performance. Not only was the noise problematic, but also the division of stage space became a highly disagreeable situation. Because of its central position, the wall cut off half of the stage's depth, leaving the corps and character dancers to fend for themselves, frantically shuffling out of the way when the male leads embarked on their grand jetés.
As far as costumes were concerned, Brown eliminated the kitschy, Alice-in-Wonderland style dress that Giselle usually dons, and instead clothed her in a lengthy, fluid, watery-blue dress. In truth, it looked about as ordinary as something purchased from the Land's End catalogue, only in silk, but it worked well with the tone of Guillem's production and the character of the other costumes. The men did not wear the traditional tights, but instead reveled and frolicked in trousers that were obviously well designed for each dancer. None of the performers seemed hindered by their dress, except perhaps for Gismondi, whose full-skirted dress got in the way with some of the turns in the pas de deux.
This change in costuming reflected the change in dramatic focus that Guillem brought to this production. One can almost feel the dramatic past in Guillem, and see the marvelous danseurs that shaped her through her choreography and theatrical direction-namely Nureyev. By keeping the peasants in more realistic clothing, rather than tights and fluffy tutus, the entire mood of the First Act was brought out from the stale and fixed fairy tale picture of Giselle, to a lively and thriving image of a town during "crush" season. The choreography featured more folk and character dancing than other productions I have seen, wrapping the audience up in its festivities. I felt as if I could have been a part of the celebrations rather than someone viewing a group of professionally trained dancers, performing French dancing steps to perfection, while pretending to be mere peasants. Besides a more realistic corps, Guillem proved to be a master of the dramatic, as she properly choreographed the correct amount of flirting between Giselle and Albrecht, without becoming sugary sweet. Perhaps it was Massimo Muru's acting, or the chemistry of their partnership that evening, but somehow the two dancers portrayed an incredibly believable love that made the story seem more of the present than of the past. The tiniest touches in between a few flighty steps, a look, a glance, or a caress, made all the difference in creating a separate persona that was the love between Giselle and Albrecht. Muru's acting capabilities served him well when, after being discovered as royalty, he attempted to sweet-talk matters with his fiancée. His desperation was brutally apparent, and Serena Colombi as Bathilde mocked Albrecht's mistake beautifully. Unfortunately, Laura Costa as Berthe, did not match up dramatically to her fellow performers. Perhaps simply miscast, Costa portrayed nothing more believable than a few weak arms held out to her daughter during Giselle's mad scene. She was not strong enough in her pleadings for Giselle to stop dancing, nor could she maintain that steady, hard, driving presence of order, power, and love, that mothers possess. She did have one redeeming quality however, that being her violent thrust of Albrecht after he dove for Giselle's corpse. If only she had acted with such passion in earlier scenes.
Guillem's dancing has not suffered over the years. The last time I saw her perform was in Nureyev's "Cinderella" with Paris Opera. Her fluidity melts you, as does her passion for dancing and Albrecht, in addition to her precision and range of extension. The arabesque line of her ballonés was really that of a penché, and she holds her second position at practically 180 degrees-without thinking twice about it. Her smile remained captivating throughout, and her mad scene was fantastic yet indefinable. I could not categorize it, or say that it was like so and so's, it was Sylvie's, pure and simple. Mere words cannot do justice to that aspect of the performance.
I only have a few issues with the costumes and lighting in the second act. It was an obvious intention to present the Wilis in individual wedding gowns in order to emphasize the individual cases and sufferings of each girl, rather than a collective mass of ghosts with one star leading them. Here were twenty-four women, each betrayed in a different way. I have no problems with this idea, however, I found the actual designs of the dresses most distracting. The designs ranged from Dior's New Look of the 1950's to the tacky '80's. And then there was an attempt to include ethnicity with a half-sari gown baring the midriff. Perhaps I would not have minded the variety if they had in some way related to one another, or if they were simply more slight variations of a classic, inoffensive design. It definitely took away from the mystery and eeriness of these spirits of the night. The ballerina's pointe shoes were too loud for Wilis (they could have been banged some more on the concrete outside of the theater) because they, and the soles of Guillem's shoes, were distractingly squeaky during the classic promenade in first arabesque. The lighting I also found rather harsh, some of the tackier gowns glared in direct light. The noise of the sets continued with the rather obnoxious fog machines. The dancing maintained a satisfying consistency within the dancers of the corps. I did not find myself nitpicking over any faulty technique or sloppy corps dancing. The Wilis remained beautifully uniform and even in their dance, as automatic as they should be.
Andrea Volpintesta's Hilarion was not disappointing in the least. His dancing was fluid yet athletic, and his death, clutching his heart mid-air in a jump, was over-the-top dramatic, yet breathtakingly beautiful.
Perhaps my favorite part of the entire ballet was Albrecht's entrance into the 2nd act. I saw the cape, and was wondering if Musso would be able to carry it in the way Nureyev always did. That however, was not applicable, for upon entering Musso merely stepped regretfully. If ever there was a physical embodiment of remorse, it occurred Friday night on that stage through Musso's portrayal of Albrecht. After reaching mid-way downstage-left, Musso held his head in his hands, and the cape simply fell to the floor, obviously echoing what his body would have wanted to do at the time, and what he would do later: collapse. Musso's dancing, no longer hampered by "the wall" of the first act, took over the stage, especially with his cabrioles, which not only flew, but also showcased his extensions. His tours were exceptional, as he landed ALL of the fifths that I witnessed. I have never seen such precision in the landings of jumps, and Musso must be commended for this.
Guillem's Giselle seemed to love him even more after her death, although her believable acting was at somewhat of a cost to her ghostliness. She was not as spirit-like as most Giselle's, but after death she seemed to have matured from a girl to a woman, if that is possible. Her hair remained in the long braid she wore during the first act, a constant reminder of her young and happy peasant days. After the bells rang to announce the Wilis retreat, she moved in a series of achingly bittersweet bourreés towards and away from Albrecht, while he eventually crumpled to the ground after one final stroke of her cheek.
All in all, I was completely sold on Guillem's new take on Giselle. It doesn't hurt that she is a fantastic dancer. Her knack for the dramatic, both in her own character and in her direction of the others, successfully pulls off the production. The polished dancing of both the corps and the stars, lacking in my recent viewing of American companies, was refreshing to see.
Edited by Marie.