Giselle is one of the oldest surviving ballets. It was created in 1841 by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot (though heavily revised in the second half of that century by Marius Petipa), and, what’s more, the Royal Ballet’s production is now way past its 30th birthday.
However, this tale of love, betrayal and forgiveness retains an almost unique capacity to stir the emotions, and the Royal's version - the fruit of producer Peter Wright and designer John Macfarlane's labours - remains a ravishing piece of work. Moreover, on Friday evening, regular dance partners Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell – having honed their performances at a “closed”, schools-only matinée a week earlier – made a joint debut of such artistry and chemistry that the story felt astonishingly new-minted.
Hayward’s Giselle is one of complete charm and vulnerability. In Act I, virtually stepping into mid-air and landing in complete silence (that’s technique for you), this tiny, drop-dead-beautiful dancer paints a subtle portrait of a smitten but too-delicate young woman, buoyed by love but heading for a fall. From her perfect phrasing and complete uninhibitedness in her lover Albrecht’s arms, to her bracing flash of real despair when the “He loves me/He loves me not” petals fall the wrong way, she poignantly signals where this tale is heading.
As, indeed, does Campbell. Although not (in ballet terms) of conventionally princely height or frame, he more than compensates through his immersion in character and the punch of his dancing. In his initial dealings with his squire, his two-timing Albrecht (already betrothed to another, but fooling around with Giselle) displays an imperiousness that’s completely credible because of its casualness. Similarly, when the clod-hopping forester Hilarion – in love with Giselle, and sure he’s Doing the Right Thing – reveals Albrecht’s duplicity and she skips imploringly over to Albrecht, Campbell boldly makes the long-ingrained arrogance of status even now take precedence. Never mind his suddenly surfacing feelings for Giselle: he coldly pushes her aside.
However, during a subtle but punishing mad scene from Hayward, he soon takes Albrecht on a finely etched arc towards complete anguish at his loss and blind fury towards Hilarion. On which subject, high marks too for first artist Kevin Emerton as the wood-chopping local boy who’s fatally less smart than he thinks he is.
For all this, though, had Hayward laid a trap for herself? Giselle is divided into a vividly terrestrial first act and completely contrasting magical, moonlit second. In Marianela Nuñez’s (wonderful, career-best) interpretation three weeks ago, there was an earthiness to her Act I dancing that left plenty of room for contrast later. But so featherlight was Hayward already that might she now, it occurred to me, have nowhere to go?
As if. In Act II, now as a wraith determined to save Albrecht – for all his past sins – from her fellow, vengeful Wilis, she barely seems to touch the ground. Her legato phrasing here has an otherworldly delicacy and control to it, and she embraces Albrecht with the same completeness as in Act I , but now also with a divine-feeling forgiveness and strength. Meanwhile, Campbell, still pouncing on every dramatic detail, is superb as a man radiating both love and remorse – his partnering here is terrific, their clinches infinitely touching – but also fighting tooth-and-nail for his life.
As the Wili queen Myrtha, Mayara Magri (another débutante) is not yet quite the murderous ice-maiden she needs to be, but technically sharp even so. As her two attendants, Elizabeth Harrod is good but Meaghan Grace Hinkis a revelation in the expansive lyricism of her upper-body – a Giselle-in-waiting, perhaps.
A superb corps, strong Act I solo work and sensitive music-making completed a marvellous evening. Indeed, the applause was of the volume reserved for those very special performances that have just managed to wrench some 2,000 hearts.
In rep until March 9. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk