From the wide variety of ballet performances that have been streamed on Mariinsky.TV during the last four months, “Giselle” holds a place of its own. It’s a unique and exceptionally-made 2016 recording of the beloved 19th-century classic, produced by Telmondis, with Mariinsky Theatre, Mezzo, France Télévisions, and featuring the company’s prima, Diana Vishneva, in the title role and Étoile of Opéra National de Paris, Mathieu Ganio, in the role of Count Albrecht.
The quintessential Romantic classic, “Giselle” was born in France, nearly 180 years ago. The first performance took place at Théâtre de l´Académie Royal de Musique, in Paris, with the music by Adolphe Adam and the choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli. In less than two years, this production was staged in St. Petersburg at the Imperial Theater to huge acclaim. In 1884, Marius Petipa, the theater’s legendary ballet master, introduced his own revisions to the original staging. And it’s this version, which is credited to all three choreographers—Perrot, Coralli and Petipa—that the Mariinsky Ballet has been dancing ever since.
Portraying the character of Giselle presents a broad range of dramatic possibilities for a ballerina, allowing her to undergo a series of astonishing transformation: from a lively young girl to an emotional wreck to a spectral ghost. Watching the performance of Diana Vishneva as Giselle allows an opportunity to see and appreciate this role as never before. A ballerina like no other, Vishneva is in a league of her own.
There are concepts like “ballet technique,” “dramatic expressivity,” “nuance and plasticity” to describe a performer. In Vishneva’s dancing and acting, all these notions are of entirely different magnitude, scale and impact. She completely and entirely illuminates and inhabits her roles, translating with her entire being—with every inch of her body—the emotional and physical state of her heroines. With a combination of her great beauty and extraordinary artistry, she creates her own reality in time and space. The effect is mesmerizing and utterly compelling.
In Act I, Vishneva’s Giselle is a shy and naïve young girl. She looks at Albrecht with wide-eyed adoration, even reverence. To her, he is the most handsome and well mannered young man she has ever met; it is his poise and refined demeanor that she finds so irresistibly attractive—he is so different from any other lad in her village. When she looks at Albrecht in the opening scene—rending her first long gaze at him—she almost immediately lowers her eyes, her face going sullen, as if she realizes, with sadness, that she is not worthy of this gallant and enigmatic stranger, that she is not attractive and sophisticated enough to capture his heart.
And she has a point. Tall and strikingly good-looking, with a perfect physique, Mathieu Ganio, as a double-dealing Albrecht, is a captivating presence on stage. The French ballet star played his role with relish, emphasizing above and beyond the nobility and aristocratic pedigree of his character. Not for a moment during the first act was there a doubt that he is a nobleman. His nature was apparent in his total self-centeredness and in his exquisite charm that Giselle found so impossible to resist.
To this Albrecht, Giselle was the embodiment of unspoiled purity and freshness, like a pristine spring in the mountains. He was captivated by her sweetness and warmth, as well as her delicate fragility; oh, and she dances so exceptionally well.
And it’s through Vishneva’s buoyant dancing in Act I we experience her character’s growing affection for Albrecht—the joy and exhilaration of first love. It felt as if she threw her initial caution and self-doubts to the wind, her brilliant hops on point and her whirlwind turns echoed the wild rush of her feelings.
When Albrecht’s secret (his aristocratic status and his engagement to Bathilde, a noble woman) is revealed, Giselle’s world—and her state of mind—crashes down. Vishneva’s portrayal of the mad scene, haunting and poignant in its dramatic intensity, was heartbreaking to watch—a devastating transformation from a vibrant girl to a broken soul.
Alas, Ganio’s Albrecht kept his cool and formality until the end of Act I—a major drawback in his characterization. In Ganio’s performance, I was looking for any indication of his character’s sincere affection, for any spark of true love—the feelings that will ultimately inspire Albrecht’s remorse, logically leading to the actions of Act II. But I found none.
In the second act, however, Ganio’s hero was the personification of grief and sorrow. Through his dancing with the spectral Giselle, you could sense Albrecht’s transformation all his own. He was no longer a playboy in search for a good time, but a man devastated by a terrible loss. His partnering of Vishneva was superb—assured, devoted and utterly elegant. To watch him to execute a sequence of jumps at the request of the implacable Myrtha, Queen of Wilis, was to empathize with his character’s plight and to admire Ganio’s superlative dancing skills.
As a wili, Vishneva was an ethereal spirit adrift, her face a solemn mask; yet through her dancing she expressed an air of warmth and kindness that was so apparent in her heroine in Act I: even in her death, she remained the same girl, with a generous heart, capable of forgiving Albrecht’s betrayal.
Ekaterina Ivannikova was a terrifying and imperious Myrtha; Igor Kolb gave a sympathetic portrayal of Hans, Giselle’s unfortunate and rejected admirer; and the Mariinsky’s female corps de ballet, staying true to its famed reputation, brought a sense of magic onstage in the second act’s pure ballet blanc ensembles.
On July 7, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater announced the resumption of their famed “The Stars of the White Nights” festival, albeit in an abbreviated format. The company released the first schedule of live performances, which will be conducted with full compliance of safety standards, and take place at the Mariinsky-II venue, presenting the concert performances of operas, piano recitals and ballet galas. The viewers all over the world will get a chance to watch live broadcasts of these performances via Mariinsky.TV and the company’s social media platforms. This is great news. And it gives hope that, with careful planning, live performing arts will persevere during the Covid-19 crisis.