Peter Wright’s version of Giselle is one of the jewels in the Royal Ballet’s crown. Created in 1985 (after the 1841 original), but further polished by both him and designer Jonathan Macfarlane in 2011, it looks ravishing and lets the story unfold with complete clarity. Add Adoplhe Adam’s charming score, exquisite choreography and – in Giselle herself – one of the greatest ballerina roles of all, and you have, in short, a production to cherish.
On Saturday-night, Iana Salenko made her debut as the wronged-but-forgiving heroine, in an interpretation that gets a lot right while also reminding one just how difficult the part is. In Act 1, when we see Count Albrecht (masquerading as a humble villager) courting her, she is delectable, huggable and heartbreaking. Dancing with an impeccably feminine grace, the dainty Ukrainian (on loan from Berlin State Ballet) infuses Giselle with so much guileless charm that the foreknowledge of the character’s fate is already appalling long before it actually befalls her.
Further helped by Steven McRae’s eloquently virtuosic Albrecht, she also adds an element of graveness to her character that hints subtly at what is to come. Very nicely done.
However, Salenko underplays Act 1’s climactic mad scene – Sarah Lamb, on Friday night, here gave a more convincing portrayal of mental disintegration – and, although her legato dancing in the moonlit Act 2 is never less than beautiful, it’s also short on drama. Still, for those first, gently resplendent 50 minutes of Act 1, I’ll forgive her a lot.
Elsewhere on Saturday night, Valentino Zucchetti was endearing as Albrecht’s love-rival, Hilarion, Sian Murphy striking as Albrecht’s true intended, Bathilde, Akane Takada the standout in an uneven pas de six. There was also good work in Act 2 from Wili Queen Helen Crawford and her two attendants.
Looking back a day, to Friday’s opening night of this revival, things were both better and worse in an evening that was less enjoyable as a whole (★★★). Standing in for an alarmingly injury-prone Natalia Osipova, Lamb’s fragile Giselle is arguably more interesting in Act 2, but less seductive at the start, despite the American’s painstaking dancing and plenty of moving flourishes. As for Matthew Golding, here making his debut as Albrecht, the handsome Canadian is almost too likeable as the duplicitous count, and has yet to prove himself here as a first-rate dramatic artist.
On Friday, the star performances in fact lay elsewhere. Thomas Whitehead’s Hilarion is superb: unusually belligerent and sarcastic, totally convincing, and reminding one that the dunderheaded forester is effectively the motor of the entire first act. The pas de six was exceptional, with Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell continuing what is fast becoming the Royal Ballet’s most appealing double-act, and Francesca Hayward delivering the best pas de chat I’ve seen on the Covent Garden stage since Alina Cojocaru (now with ENB).
Full marks, too to Christina Arestis’s splendidly icy Bathilde on Friday and – on both evenings – the corps, the house orchestra, and Kristen McNally’s Berthe. With a mother that intense, poor Giselle perhaps never stood a chance.
Giselle is at the Royal Opera House, London, in rep until April 15. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk