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Giselle in Naples

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This week in Naples the Teatro di San Carlo is presenting Giselle as staged by Lyudmila Semenyaka, using sets and costumes borrowed from Florence and three pairs of guest artists as the protagonists. So far Svetlana Zakharova and Ruslan Skvortsov (April 14, 16), and Yolanda Correa and Yoel Carreño (April 15) have performed the leads.

Initially I thought Semenyaka might depart a bit more from standard Bolshoi practice after Albrecht made his entrance to the “Entrée de Loys” rather than the “Entrée joyeuse des vendangeurs et vendangeuses,” but ultimately there were few deviations. Albrecht’s appearance in Act 1 is still fleeting, Berthe’s mime is cut and Hilarion’s is truncated, and at the conclusion of the first act Berthe is dragged to the side so that the curtain can come down on Albrecht cradling Giselle’s body in his arms; Giselle’s variation comes after the peasant pas de deux. In the second act there are no gamblers, and Myrtha makes her entrance by running out from downstage left before bourrée-ing back from upstage left. The production uses little in the way of special effects: no trapdoors, no veils, no twinkling bushes (thankfully) and very little dry ice. The orchestration was not familiar to me, but I don’t know whether this was Semenyaka’s special request or simply the version the theater had in its score library.

To the extent that this is Semenyaka’s staging, I’m guessing this applies primarily to the corps, since the leads were late arrivals to the production. A week ago Zakharova was dancing the ballet in Milan, and Skvortsov was appearing in Don Quixote in Moscow. The lead couples performed versions familiar to them, so there were differences in detail between the two, requiring the corps, Hilarion and Berthe to adjust accordingly.

Raffaele Del Savio’s backdrops are alpine in the extreme: no space for vineyards anywhere. The costumes by Mario Biorsi and Giusi Giustino use a cerise palette for Wilfried and most of the villagers, and gold for the aristocrats and the peasant couple. They’re attractive, except for Bathilde’s costume, which makes her resemble some sort of bulbous undersea creature. (No wonder Albrecht isn’t impressed.) It is difficult to understand why Giselle should be so taken with the gown. Zakharova wore her La Scala costume in the first act, and a Bolshoi (Virsaladze) tutu in the second. Skvortsov used Virsaladze for both acts, only with boots in Act 1. It turns out that Virsaladze’s strappy, leathery tunic, which I had thought was irredeemable, actually looks much better with a pair of matching boots. I assume it, rather than the Givenchy costume, was chosen to mirror Hilarion’s dark leather outfit. Presumably Correa and Carreño brought their costumes from Oslo.

Against the backdrop of the San Carlo company, Zakharova and Skvortsov stood out instantly, not only because of the obvious superiority of their dancing, especially the very quiet landings of jumps, but also because they were much taller than just about everyone else on stage. I know Zakharova’s suitability to play a humble peasant girl is a subject of debate, but I have to say her attempt is an honest one. Apart from one artful look she throws at the audience during the first-act variation--an ill-advised detail that could easily be eliminated--I think she does her best to steer clear of ballerina mannerisms. (I’ve seen far worse from other Russian Giselles.) The legs fly up too high, and that is not likely to change; I suppose anyone going into a Zakharova performance knows that in advance. She does make some choreographic alterations. Whenever there is a little hopping step on demi-pointe, Zakharova instead turns it into a full rise onto pointe. She does not perform a renversé in the first-act variation, and at her entrance in the second he replaces the usual sissonne-assemblé sequence with a series of loping glissades. Zakharova’s elevation is not especially great, her split jumps have a horizontal quality and her soubresauts are jerky, but in petit allegro steps her foot always clears the ground, and given that her feet are large, that is saying something. At the end of the second-act adage she maintains her sequence of entrechats longer than many others can. Her mad scene is not highly dramatic; she appears more dazed than anything until the actual moment of the “heart attack.” Given her extensive experience performing adages very slowly, she is always able to sustain an atmosphere of suspended time in Act 2.

I really can’t praise Skvortsov’s Albrecht highly enough, with his elegant virility, ability to make classicism appear natural and complete, highly detailed dramatic involvement. By nature he is subtle and understated, so he is not one of those Albrechts who spreads his guts on the floor and throws his head around a lot. But that doesn’t make his interpretation any less deeply felt. Indeed, he is always dramatically engaged, retreating a little when it’s Giselle’s moment to be center stage, but completely present with a naturalistic spontaneity, especially in the first act, and deeply Romantic poetry, especially in the second. His performances with Zakharova do not have quite the same dramatic urgency as the ones he gave with Ekaterina Krysanova in Washington last year, because Krysanova is a more spontaneous, direct and responsive sort of dancer. But he and Zakharova must be in the running for most beautiful-looking pairing in the history of the artform. The lifts are all breathtakingly seamless, made all the more impressive for being performed at a glacial tempo. His dancing is luxuriant, with huge, easy elevation, plush landings and gorgeous port de bras. Musical and choreographic leitmotifs are an integral part of Giselle, and Skvortsov is acutely aware of them. His attempt to revive Giselle’s lifeless body hearkens back directly to her first fainting spell, and at the end of the ballet, when he attempts to prevent Giselle returning to her grave, the reference to their first scene and his playful blocking of the door to her home comes back with searing clarity. His sense of desolation is profound, as is the musical impulse of his dancing. His second performance here was particularly moving because of the feeling that he had deposited every last bit of his physical and emotional reserves on the stage, and that sort of self-emptying for the sake of art is not a quality frequently encountered.

On the second night of the run Correa made a lovely, sweet, vulnerable and completely believable Giselle. In her variation she nailed the turns in attitude, and the hops on pointe really were gravity-defying hops. Her mad scene was gripping from the outset, though what these performances made me realize yet again is that the effectiveness of the scene largely depends on Albrecht’s reaction afterwards. (More on that later.) At her entrance in Act 2, she turned with such force that I was actually taken aback (but was relieved when I realized she had no intention of carrying that ferocious energy through the rest of the ballet). She jumps extremely well, but her balance is equally strong. She perhaps held on to the first développé in the adage for too long; it resembled a trick. The remainder of the pas de deux was beautiful, if not as exalted as the tall majesty provided by the first cast. A year ago Alastair Macaulay chided Zakharova for doing a series of supported split leaps rather than temps levés in the ballet’s coda, thus missing out on one of those choreographic leitmotifs that runs through the ballet. But here Correa did exactly the same thing. (Immediately prior both Skvortsov and Carreño performed two diagonals of brisés; Skvortsov’s were clearer, and he appeared to have more stamina.) Correa’s best moment came at the very end, which suggested that the redemption that took place was hers and not Albrecht’s, so powerful was the sense of her soul being set free. This was deeply moving.

The most disappointing performance came from Carreño, whose dancing was forceful and macho, but who had less elegance and no poetry. The landings of his jumps were quite heavy, his arms flapped around too much, and in his initial second-act meeting with Giselle he struggled with the big lifts and had to bail out of the second one early; there weren’t any such problems in the pas de deux. Unfortunately, it was the characterization I found most lacking. For example, when Giselle collapsed at the end of the mad scene, he immediately dropped to his knees and began sobbing. Why was he already certain she was dead? There is a lot an Albrecht can do here: he can register a moment of shock, he can try to revive her, he can show how his despair turns to anger against Hilarion. But Carreño does none of this. Throughout the ballet he showed big emotions and big reactions, but no thought process. If this sort of thing does not come naturally to him, I don’t understand why a coach hasn’t helped him develop a fuller interpretation. There were, nevertheless, opportunities to compare the different approaches of the two Albrechts. When Albrecht finds himself cornered by the wilis, Carreño kneels down before Myrtha, but stares at her defiantly. On the other hand, Skvortsov, dignified and grave, appears resigned to die, because he knows he deserves it, and it’s only when Giselle comes flying in to his rescue that the story’s trajectory changes.

Perhaps it was just as well that Semenyaka used Myrtha’s running entrance, because Luisa Ieluzzi’s bourrées were on the slow side and looked a little turned-in, especially to the left. I thought her alternate Annalisa Nuzzo to be better at Myrtha’s key elements--bourrées, balances and jumps--so I was puzzled by the casting order. Ieluzzi did have a very large and young cheering section at the first performance, and her second performance was better. Perhaps they and Semenyaka see a potential that I have not had an opportunity to glimpse.

As Hilarion, Edmondo Tucci, one of the company’s principals, did not walk heel-first, and in his manner he almost seemed to suggest that he could have played Albrecht if only he were taller. (I am not saying that there was some sort of wounded pride in his stage manner, merely that this sort of rough-and-ready role is probably not what he is used to performing.) The second-cast Ertugrel Gjoni had no difficulties fitting into the role, and if his solo dancing was not especially distinguished, there was relatively little of it, and his mime was forceful and clear.

The opening polacca of the peasant pas de deux incorporated a handful of other villagers, but from the andante onward it was strictly a duet. With her appropriately unadorned manner, Claudia D’Antonio did a fine job, and of the men Salvatore Manzo did a better job of the second variation, while Carlo De Martino was better in the first. Candida Sorrentino, who had been the best in the sextet of Giselle’s friends in the first cast, was a little tentative when the spotlight was on her alone.

All four dancers who performed Moyna and Zulme were very reluctant to sway off the vertical, and some of Giselle’s friends seemed daunted by their assignment. Much of the women’s allegro seemed simplified. Of course, I don’t know how many of the familiar beats are actually notated.

The program listed the company as having 36 members, including “adjunct” dancers, but it did manage to field a corps of 24 wilis, so I presume they were supplemented by students from the theater’s school. From a technical standpoint this company is weaker than my local company of 33+7 dancers, but what they do have is stylistic cohesion. It is overwhelmingly Italian, and judging by the bios that were printed, most its dancers were trained either in Naples or Rome. There were no synchronization problems whatever, so obviously Semenyaka and her assistants had broken down the rhythms very precisely. In the first act the company brought a very suitable earthiness to their dancing. When Semenyaka asked them to clap in unison, they did so with gusto. This quality was not so well suited to the second act. In the sequence of “chugs” there were a few stray arms and legs, and the chugs themselves were noisy, but the corps maintained their lines perfectly. All of the first-cast Neapolitans fared better in their second go around; nerves are a nasty thing.

The conductor was Alexei Baklan from the National Opera of Ukraine, and thankfully he kept things moving along, avoiding extreme shifts in tempos while being attentive to dancers’ needs. The exceptions, of course, were Zakharova’s adagio sections. As for the orchestra, the wind section had difficulty staying together when playing as a unit, though individually the oboe, flute and piccolo did just fine. The principal viola played his solo sections well, which doesn’t always happen. There doesn't appear to be any sort of organized claque for ballet performances in Naples, but a theater employee stands at the entrance of the orchestra pit and helpfully begins applauding when the conductor enters.

On opening night the orchestra level was sold out. I can’t speak for certain about the boxes. (Theoretically, the center boxes can hold eight spectators each, though I discovered first-hand that this is not desirable. Worse than airplane seating.) On the second night the orchestra was only about one-third full. On the third night I’d guess it was about three-quarters full. So if you arrive in Naples and buy some form of artecard to visit the museums and ancient ruins, it may be entirely possible to walk into the San Carlo box office and avail yourself of the 10% discount on tickets even at the last minute, at least for ballets.

Galina Stepanenko was present in the audience on opening night. I don’t know whether it’s standard practice for the Bolshoi to send a revizor when its dancers appear as guest artists. Perhaps Semenyaka’s production was the reason for the special attention.

The souvenir program includes a listing of every past production of Giselle performed at the Teatro di San Carlo. The first run took place in 1850, but more than 100 years would pass before it returned in a “reduced version” performed by American Ballet Theatre. Additional tours by London Festival Ballet and the Royal Ballet followed before the theater itself mounted a second production in 1971. It appears to have become a fairly regular feature of the repertoire since then.


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Thanks for this very nuanced and clear review!

I could just "see" many of the details through your descriptions.

"Giselle" seems to be "big" in many companies - also modern ones - in Europe this season; almost as if it were "catching". (or perhaps it is partly due to a number of principal dancers touring around, performing the roles as guests?)


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"Giselle" seems to be "big" in many companies - also modern ones - in Europe this season; almost as if it were "catching". (or perhaps it is partly due to a number of principal dancers touring around, performing the roles as guests?)


There does seem to be something about programming that runs in groups. A couple of years ago you could travel up and down the Pacific coast from Giselle to Giselle, and not have much time between shows.

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It's also true that there are many dancers available to appear as guest artists in Giselle. Apparently Zakharova has given 13 performances of the ballet this calendar year, none of them in Moscow. Perhaps the Teatro di San Carlo realized that inviting Semenyaka to do the staging would be a good way to secure the services of her pupil Zakharova, who certainly sells tickets. Travel times between European cities are not very long, and if performing with a familiar partner, the amount of rehearsal time needed on site would not be that great. The local audience gets to see some stars, the local dancers get to perform alongside them, and the visitors get another opportunity to perform a ballet they love.

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