Phoenix Symphony Hall
November 3, 2007 (matinee and evening)
by Helene Kaplan
copyright 2007 by Helene Kaplan
At the end of the Gluck's "Iphigenia in Tauris," an opera that has had a renaissance in Europe and North America these past few seasons, Iphigenia must choose between revenge and forgiveness. At the beginning of Act II, Giselle, who like Iphigenia cannot change the events leading up to the decision point, faces an afterlife of vengeance and has a similar choice to make that's rooted in a timeless question of classical literature: justice or mercy? Key to any interpretation of one of the greatest female roles of the classical canon is how Giselle makes this choice.
I flew from Seattle, just having seen "Iphigenia," to Phoenix to see Ballet Arizona's production of "Giselle" (staged by the company's artistic director, Ib Andersen). Two dark beauties shared the title role, and it was Ginger Smith, at the Saturday matinee, who made me think of the parallel. Smith's performance of the "Flower Festival in Genzano Pas de Deux" last season indicated the joy and charm, the lush phrasing and prodigious technique, she could bring to Act I, and she was a ray of warmth and natural grace. Because she was so vividly and happily alive, when she registered Loys's betrayal, her wonderfully deranged mad scene was believable. She darted between hope and despair, as though trying desperately to set back the clock, and lashed out against the hopelessness of her situation before she died.
None of this prepared me for her Act II. Smith went straight from the grave to the forest, and invested the energy of that mad scene on the opening swirls that signify her entering her afterlife as a Wili; this was a continuation of her last living moments. When she returned for the first adagio, she held the perfect carriage in her back as she raised her leg in arabesque, expanding up and out, until she just passed 90 degrees, and only then did she begin the penchee. In that single moment of pure beauty, she had me.
Throughout the act she retained the essence of her living Giselle, never losing the warmth, blooming in adagio, and focusing on Albrecht. Her arms were extraordinary; when she reached to the heavens, it was not just a choreographed gesture. As she circled her head slowly in adagio, leading with her eyes, her arms, shoulders, and neck seemed boneless. Her dancing in Act II was of a piece, and simply exquisite.
Smith's Giselle may have become a Wili in form, but not of heart. If Albrecht found his heart by sacrificing hers, her Giselle was the first to convince me with her generosity of spirit. She didn't just save him. By refusing vengeance and remaining true to herself, she saved her soul.
Saturday evening, Natalia Magnicaballi was a quite different "Giselle." Magnicaballi is a dancer who has been astonishing in roles from "Rubies" to "Serenade;" she's one who has a lot to express and is worth "hearing." Although her Giselle was no exception, she's not dramatically simpatico enough with the girl-Giselle in Act I to not hint at the iconic Giselle she becomes in Act II. The sureness and authority that works for Kitri or Lise in "La Fille Mal Gardee" takes her a little outside the character of Giselle. She was already more than halfway to becoming a Wili from the start of Act II, distilling the purity of style, and exuding calmness to contrast with the vengeful sisterhood.
Magnicaballi and Smith could not have had more contrasting Albrechts: Ross Clarke's ardent, somewhat naive suitor (with Magnicaballi) and Astrit Zejnati's cad (with Smith). Clarke was a loving Albrecht; had we not seen the opening scene, we would have been just as surprised as Hilarion when he later reached for his sword. He looked completely shamed when Bathilde claimed him as her fiance. Clarke is completely convincing as a young lover, and even more importantly as a partner, but his phrasing, particularly in Act II, was too literal where the choreography and the music ask for legato. Still, there were many things of beauty in his Act II, particularly the soaring jumps, and he was always in character and true to style.
After a spectacular entrance, Zejnati showed his Act I true colors: imperious towards his servant, cold and still in his facial expressions when he wasn't responding to Giselle, superior towards Hilarion before and after he was found out, and right into royal character when Bathilde outed him as her fiance, wanting to eat his cake and have it too, probably certain that he could lie, cheat, and steal his way out of the situation. (If "Don Giovanni" is ever made into a ballet, he's the man for it.) That was, until Giselle died, and he felt stirrings of love with sacrifice and responsibility. Zejnati's dancing was always in proportion to the style; I've never seen him break his frame. His movement came from his center. and in his sense of style is innate. In Act II especially, he melted the dance phrases together and built them in an arc, like a song. His long series of beats had a visceral flutter, from first to last. He never asked to be likable; he earned respect and empathy in his transformation
This kind of detailed acting and character building is rare in ballet today, and what really sets this production apart from others is the clarity of its storytelling; this alone would have made my trip to Phoenix worthwhile. In many stagings of "Giselle," there is a dichotomy between the reality of Act I and the supernatural world of Act II. When the Mother's mime scene — usually cut — in which Giselle's mother warns her daughter, and the village, of the Wilis is included, as it is in Phoenix, it is the dramatic centerpiece of Act I and binds the two acts together by introducing the Wilis into whose world we enter in Act II. It explains why Giselle's mother does not want her daughter to fall in love with the new neighbor, whose character, intentions — whose people — are unknown: any other child might recover from a broken heart, but her child might not withstand the physical shock and would, as a result, be damned for eternity. It also provides a chill in the otherwise unbroken streak of love, happiness, and horseplay among the young villagers that are bookended between Hilarion's suspicion and denunciation.
Whether the mime was performed by Carolyn Reardon, who told it with such foreboding it was like an original, bloody Grimm's fairy tale — I thought of Madge in Bournonville's "La Sylphide" — or Lisbet Companioni, who was repeating a belief passed down through the generations, the consequences of the betrayal in Act I are no longer just personal and temporal â she has a broken heart, literally and figuratively — but universal and eternal — there will be consequences to the men that human society doesn't enforce and to the female spirits who prey upon them. That the villagers brush this off as an old wives' tale makes Act II that much more potent; the worst warnings are those not heeded.
What was unusual is that, temperamentally, the secondary characters also reflected the emotional landscape of Giselle's world, and each cast's world was as strongly contrasting. Even the dancers in the peasant pas de deux had distinct characters. In the evening performance, Paola Hartley's peasant was Italianate, and she danced with charm, vivacity, and flair. (Her partner, Daniel Marshalsay, gave a careful and so rather disappointing performance.) Lisbeth Componioni's Berthe was an affectionate, involved mother, and a vivid stage presence. Kanako Imayoshi's Bathilde was warm and kind. Tzu-Chia Huang's Myrtha was a vengeful, charged character.
If Magnicaballi's Giselle grew up in Bavaria, Smith's village was in Prussia. At Saturday's matinee, too, the supporting cast was crucial in depicting Giselle's world. Carolyn Reardon's Berthe,while not quite cold, was practical in her short opening scene with Hilarion, no-nonsense with her daughter, and foreboding in the Mother's mime. She carried herself with dignity, and her face betrayed nothing. Kendra Mitchell and Robert Dekkers had more classical demeanor in the Peasant pas de deux, with lovely lines and gorgeous dancing, but not much of a traditional peasant flavor to the dancing. Tzu-Chia Huang was a royal Bathilde. Even Kanako Imayoshi's eerie figure, with her Kabuki mask-like face, as Myrtha was more detached than fierce.
The corps was exceptional in both acts. In the first, they created Giselle's world and were engaged fully, from touches like Ian Poulis's rollicking entrance to the camaraderie of the men's corps. The six women in gold in the Giselle's Friends dance were both in sync and individual. The entire extended scene of dances for the village young was vivid and varied; it's rare in my experience to see an Act I where I'm disappointed that the ensemble scene has ended, and where no one looks disgruntled at being the third villager from the back.
The Wilis in Act II moved and breathed as an organic whole, alternately light and unforgiving, and their arms were particularly fine. Chelsi Saari was a standout in the first solo, with superb technique and soft jumps. Michelle's Mahowald's arms in the second variation were rounded and flowing. Huang was a formidable Myrtha.
Hilarion is a plum character role in this production, and both Vitaly Breusenko (matinee) and Joseph Cavanaugh (evening) were complex: sympathetic in their love for Giselle, but equally rough and selfish in the scene where Hilarion lays claim to Giselle and berated her for being in love with Loys, and quietly dignified when Albrecht attempted to stab them. They both were terrific in the few minutes of intense dancing before being finished off by the Wilis.
The Phoenix Symphony, conducted by Timothy Russell, played the score as though they believed in it.
Photos are all of the dress rehearsal, all by Rosalie O'Connor.
First: Natalia Magnicaballi and Ross Clarke
Second: Ginger Smith and Astrit Zejnati
Third: Ginger Smith
Fourth: Lisbet Companioni
Fifth: Tzu-Chia Huang as Myrtha