Review: Giselle @ Birmingham Hippodrome

The one ballet I can never resist is Giselle, and after watching Ballet Nacional De Cuba’s version at the Hippodrome I now know why.

Giselle has a deep and abiding fascination for theatre-goers and with good reason. Premiered in 1810 this 200 year-old work contains endless delights, its music pushing the punishing plot with an unparalleled intensity.

It’s a French ballet, the kind nineteenth century Russians adored. Here the romantic mingled with tragic producing deeply emotional works often touched by the supernatural. They reached their peak in the work of Tchaikovsky who was deeply influenced by Adam’s score for Giselle when writing his own Swan Lake.

But the big question is – how does this stuff hold its end up today? Well Giselle’s plot is deceptively simple. We’re in a village deep, deep in the forest, where folk are simple and quaint. A peasant girl (Giselle) is bethrothed to a woodcutter (Hilarion) who will make her an excellent husband and care for her old widowed mother.

Into this idyll comes Albrecht, an aristo whose idea of a good time is seducing a village girl and then leaving when he’s had his easy way.  But Giselle (Viengsayh Valdes) is no ordinary girl. She has every lover’s secret heart. So when Albrecht (Elier Bourzac) is confronted by the princess he’s already engaged to (she’s slumming it on a hunting party) Giselle loses her reason and dies, of a weak heart perhaps, in some versions by suicide but really, of grief. Let’s face it, it’s an archetypal broken heart.

The first act here was a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with stricter direction  needed to stop every moment of dramatic tension being dissipated by a wrong note. The orchestra too seemed to be stuck in a swamp of mischosen tempos.

But the incomparable second act made up for everything. Here the wilis, undead spirits of young girls jilted before marriage convene in a mathematical symmetry of gleaming “white act” choreography to wreak  vengeance on men foolish enough to stray into their part of the woods. First they catch innocent Hilarion and hound him to his doom, but when Albrecht returns, penitent, to Giselle’s grave her spirit keeps him safe by dancing until dawn, when the evil spell breaks.

Loud cheers at the finale rewarded the emotional warmth of this moving show. Not bad for an old timer. Giselle, you’re my kind of girl.

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