By Megan McLaughlin
The Opéra National de Paris’s 2007 production of Giselle makes it abundantly clear why the French are known for ballet. The new choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot brings a breath of fresh air to the score of Adolphe Adam’s tried and true 1841 “ballet-pantomime.” Giselle recounts the tale of a peasant girl in the Middle Ages who dies after having her heart broken by a Duke. Streaming now on medici.tv with a duration of just under two hours, Giselle is a great quarantine activity for those looking to nourish their childlike sense of wonder.
The ballet opens with Duke Albrecht (Nicolas Le Riche) disguising himself as a peasant to court the lovely villager Giselle (Laëtitia Pujol). The two fall fast in love, chasing each other around the village square and engaging in playful gimmicks before joining in a capricious pas de deux. Their love dismays Giselle’s mother, who thinks the gamekeeper Hilarion (Wilfried Romoli) is a far better match.
The Duke hides, as a troupe of noblemen — including his true betrothed — enter the village for a rest after hunting, clothed in spunky hats and robes in deep tones of blue and purple, rather than the pastels of simple villagers. Following their departure, Hilarion exposes the Duke’s true identity and calls back the noblemen using a hunting horn. In despair of the truth, Giselle begins to hallucinate, and recalls her first meeting with the Duke, reenacting bits of their courting dance, until, in a panicked frenzy, her heart gives out.
Act II finds Hilarion mourning at Giselle’s grave, but is chased away by Queen Myrtha (Marie-Agnès Gillot) and the Wilis — the spirits of maidens, who like Giselle, were betrayed by their lovers. The Duke lays flowers at Giselle’s grave only to be met by her spirit, and begs her for forgiveness, which she grants. The spirits curse Hilarion to dance until he is almost dead, and then drown him in a lake. They try to sentence the Duke to the same fate, but Giselle’s love is strong enough to break the spell, as well as release herself from the rule of the Wilis. The Duke and Giselle pantomime an emotional goodbye as she returns to her grave, and the curtain falls.
It’s difficult to decide what deserves the most praise in this production — the rustic but elegant set design, the chemistry between the leading lady and her partner, the pastel and chiffon-clad costumes, or conductor Paul Connely, who guided the orchestra with skilled ease. I award honorable mention to the in-tune piccolo player — a pleasant surprise if ever I’ve heard one.
The variety of camera angles in the stream showcased the pantomime done by Le Riche and Pujol, as well as hid a few slight blunders by the corps de ballet. At the end of Act I, the joy and love between the Duke and Giselle melts away in the prolonged shot of Pujol’s head and shoulders as she hallucinates her first meeting with Le Riche. As her arched eyebrows raise and the corners of her mouth turn down, her expression changing from shock to disbelief to sorrow is easily perceived by the viewer. In this moment, the ballet transitions from being about two starcrossed lovers hopelessly smitten with each other to themes of betrayal, heartbreak, and despair.
As a child, I used to point at the pretty dancers prancing across the stage without a care in the world for what was happening in the plot. Now, I see the characters’ struggles and empathize with them — it’s nice to have a reason to worry about something other than current day problems. I am grateful for the two hours of distraction this production provided me, and I hope they can do that for others, as well.