Giselle is one of La Scala Ballet's international calling cards. Together with Nureyev's Don Quixote, this production has been seen all over the world, and rightly so. The company dances it beautifully, and its staging by Yvette Chauviré (based, of course, on the Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot choreography) would be difficult to better. It is clearly told, the story points being so carefully prepared that focus is always on the right spot at the right time.
The sets and costumes are traditional – using Aleksander Benois's designs created for the Paris Opera Ballet, with Olga Spessivtseva as Giselle, in 1924 – and tone perfect, with a rich palette of harvest time hues at the opening, and the darkest, most threatening of forests in the second act. His old-fashioned gauzes and painted backcloths work their magic and produce a gasp from the audience on every opening of the curtain. The laying out of the set is superlative with a hidden ramp for the court, including Albrecht, to descend from its lofty castle to join the villagers; the entrance to the cottage that Albrect uses to hide his cloak and sword to ‘disguise' himself as a peasant is towards the centre of the stage so the entire audience can see the essential moments of concealing and discovering his princely regalia; and a distant church is seen during the second act which is illuminated by the warm light of dawn as its bells chime 4 o'clock.
The costumes are sumptuous, so the villagers' past harvests were clearly astonishingly abundant. Giselle's first act costume has a generous, plump skirt, as is seen in Benois's designs. Bathilde, though, is something of a confusion as her costume is so heavy and ornate that she appears to be the Duke's wife, therefore Albrecht's mother, not his betrothed. In addition, having her and the Duke entering hand in hand adds to this feeling whereas I remember, in earlier editions, that the Duke entered first and then presented Bathilde as she came on separately, which makes far more sense.
The opening cast saw Svetlana Zakharova and David Hallberg in the main roles, bringing them back together after five years. They danced Swan Lake at La Scala in 2014, shortly before Hallberg suffered his devastating injuring (forcing him to cancel his performances at the theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty with Zakharova, the following year). How wonderful to report that Hallberg is back in sublime form. He is innately elegant, and his lines are drawn to fit perfectly with those of Zakharova. Though always clear in his mime, he is a subtle actor, and the gentleness as he touches Giselle's arms from behind as he joins her for their second act pas de deux is typical of his care to give each gesture a meaning. His plié is deep and soft, and the use of his legs and feet are the utmost in expressivity. Zakharova danced beautifully, as the Milanese audience has come to expect, and even though this isn't her ideal role, she gave a pleasing performance. Her outstanding finesse is in every movement, though she will insist on taking her leg up unnecessarily high on occasions causing her tutu to start slipping down her leg – not a good look. She overdid her makeup a little (though at the back of the house this probably wasn't an issue) which gave her expression a harder edge than is ideal for the young peasant girl.
The peasant pas de deux with Martina Arduino and Nicola Del Freo was magnificent. Arduino would be better suited to playing Giselle or Myrtha, though she danced the steps ably even if she isn't a natural for the role. Del Freo, however, was thrillingly perfect. His leg and footwork was extraordinary with steely precision and virile cockiness in each step. Maria Celeste Losa played Myrtha at almost every performance. Whether this is because no one else in the company can approach her level is doubtful, but she excelled in the jumps, gave humanity to her austerity, and her pas de bourrée crisscrossing of the stage was mesmerising. Her two main Wilis were Alessandra Vassallo and Emanuela Montanari, two of the company's most personable dancers yet they gave suitably glacial interpretations with technically assured solos.
Mick Zeni was Hilarion, exuding suspicion, jealousy and finally hatred, and was pitiful in the second act. Equally suited to the role was Marco Agostino who also possesses some fine acting talent as well as great aplomb in his dancing. Christian Fagetti too never fails to deliver, and La Scala now boasts an impressive roster of male talent, which wasn't so evident a decade or so ago.
Giselle's mother was played by Beatrice Carbone who is just a couple of years older than Zakharova, but she convincingly inhabited the part from the inside instead of wearing it like a costume. In an alternative cast, however, Daniela Siegrist looked more like a Julie Walters' character as she bustled about, wringing her hands. Judging these parts can be trickier than tackling the main roles.
Federico Fresi and Antonella Albano were also splendid in the peasants' pas de deux. Fresi comes with built-in springs in his legs, but it's a pity that his perpetually anxious look makes him look as though he's going into battle.
The other Giselle and Albrecht couples during the run were Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko, and Vittoria Valerio and Claudio Coviello. All four gave satisfying readings. The fact that Valerio dances the role well is a given, and La Scala has entrusted it to her many times even though she's still a soloist with the company. She was paired with Coviello who performed, quite thrillingly, 34 entrechats six in front of Myrtha, and although he was beaten by Andrijashenko on number (36, as Roberto Bolle used to do), they were beautifully executed and on the spot. Hallberg opted for the diagonal series of brises.
Andrijashenko is an extremely good Albrecht and is very much of the upper classes – taking off his cloak and sword probably only fools Giselle. He was sunny and cunning in the first act, though facially he became somewhat invisible in the second act. His Giselle was Manni who was pitch-perfect from the moment she left the cottage – wide-eyed innocence never becoming cutesy, and she made each step appear simple and natural. As a Wili, she was cool but feeling, imploring with her eyes, and loving with the tilt of her head.
It was evident why this ballet remains the pièce de résistance of La Scala's repertoire.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.