In honour of Carla Fracci, who died last year, Rome Opera Ballet has restaged her version of Giselle, which was mounted in 2004 during her time as director of the company (2000-2010). The production includes many musical passages that have been cut over the years – Giselle has an extra variation in the first act, for example – yet make dramatic sense.
During the mad scene, for example, there is a short, serene musical interlude (that can be heard on the Richard Bonynge recording, as can most of the usually omitted segments) that comes after the business with the sword. Giselle seems to find a moment of peace and sees her friends around her with pleasure. She kneels and crosses herself, and goes into the house, reappearing with a wedding veil which she struggles out of when she sees Bathilde (in the same way that the Wilis lose theirs in the second act), and the madness continues. It feeds the story.
After Giselle is crowned Queen of the Harvest (after the peasants’ pas de deux) comes an adage with Albrecht, then Giselle’s extra variation followed by a variation for Albrecht and then a group coda, which makes for a formal pas de deux. Fracci’s choreography is delightful, and it is odd to think that she never danced it.
In the second act, after Hilarion has been defeated by the Wilis, Giselle protects Albrecht from the vengeful ghosts by bringing him to safety near the cross on her grave. Then comes the fugue, which is usually cut, recalling the music of (the Lutheran composer) Johann Sebastian Bach. The Wilis mimic the counterpoint of the music but remain in their diagonal line leading from the cross, as though petrified by its power. Another layer of meaning that musically surprises the ear but works dramatically.
Kevin Rhodes, a conductor renowned for ballet, has surprisingly tackled Adolphe Adam’s score for the first time this year. His phrasing was intelligent and passionate, bringing out the best in the orchestra, and there were some surprising tempi – though presumably, not for the dancers.
There are many other interesting additions in Fracci’s staging, such as the action during the overture where we see Albrecht preparing for the hunt: two Afghan hounds await him, his friend Wilfred gives him his ‘important plot point’ sword, he kisses his betrothed, Bathilde, goodbye, blows on the hunting horn (important plot point object, number two) and leaves with the courtiers who we later see crisscrossing the village, looking for Albrecht who has given them the slip. Bathilde has a short dance with the courtiers that makes her seem young and alive, and not just a mannequin wearing the frock Giselle so admires. The first scampering Wilis in the second act wear black tulle veils, which certainly sets the tone. Hilarion approaching Giselle’s grave evokes some of the choreography that Giselle performs with Albrecht in the first act on the same theme, as though he is acknowledging that Albrecht was her true love.
The ballet – meticulously remounted by Gillian Whittingham and Julio Bocca – sees the Rome company in excellent form, with admirably un-wobbly Wilis in arabesque, peasants joyously weaving in and out during their dances in Anna Anni’s stunningly coloured costumes, and with clear, confident storytelling. On the last performance of the run, Claudio Cocino was a technically superb Hilarion, and Federica Maine and Walter Maimone were stylish and sure as the two peasants in their pas de deux. Marianna Suriano was a satisfying Myrtha, even though she lacked the jump and authority of a truly outstanding interpreter.
For the last two evening performances, the company welcomed Natalia Osipova as Giselle and Jacopo Tissi as Albrecht.
Osipova is the polar opposite of Carla Fracci as Giselle. If Fracci is Bette Davis, then Osipova is Joan Crawford. Osipova seems to (almost frighteningly) inhabit the role with real emotion rather than using acting technique to convey that emotion, recalling Daniel Day-Lewis’s emotional investment and subsequent psychological collapse during a run of Hamlet in London. With a method acting approach such as hers, she may think that sacrificing a clean technique on the altar of emotional honesty is the right price to pay, and although it was an exciting and tear-jerking portrayal, I was concerned about the kamikaze manèges and her raised shoulders to make the jetés even higher. Her purest dancing was for the new variation where she was respectful and didn’t yet feel the need to make it her own.
Her Giselle is undoubtedly a country girl. Rather gauche, and certainly not cultured or mature – during her first moments on stage she looks at her feet and hands as though she’s just discovering what they can express. As Tissi is so tall – they are not an ideal couple – when she looks up at him it is as though she is a child gazing at an adult, making his later treatment of this defenceless creature seem even crueller. When she shows the first signs of having a weak heart, Osipova truly looked ill – Mother will be proved right – and appeared exceptionally vulnerable. There were some technical difficulties: the diagonal of ronds de jambe – where she decided to add in a 360-degree turn as she was doing them – saw panic in her wrists as she used all her force to complete the sequence, something probably complicated by the Rome Opera House’s steep rake. However, the general effect was exhilarating, and the mad scene was unbearably true.
In the second act, though, she was convincing throughout, as though she had a permanent tear running down her cheek. Unfortunately, Rome Opera’s stage has an unusual exit downstage right, and if the whole diagonal is used, it is necessary to return upstage a little to exit, which interrupts the flow of the movement, but Osipova didn’t let that force her out of character for a moment. The height of her entrechats amazes every time.
Tissi comes into his own in the second act where he can show off his fine technique, though he had to cut short his entrechat six as the cruel rake pulled him towards the orchestra pit. He was affecting too, and in the closing bars when Bathilde and the court arrive by the grave that Giselle has entered for the last time, his good-mannered instinct is to go with her but – this time – he refuses her hand and reaffirms his love for Giselle.
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.