I’m often asked why I see so many iterations of the same ballet and the answer comes from indelible performances such as this. Peter Wright’s production of Giselle has been danced by The Royal Ballet since 1985, achieving a rich patina from over 30 years of experience, passed on through a continuum of expert coaching and enlivened by the ongoing enquiry of new interpretations from dancers coming fresh to the ballet. Add the relatively recent facelift given to John Macfarlane’s designs – in 2011 – and here is the recipe for that magical space between opposing poles of tradition and innovation from which great performances are mined.

Marianela Nuñez as Giselle
© Helen Maybanks | ROH, 2018

Marianela Nuñez delivered one of those defining performances in the title role. Incredibly, Nuñez joined The Royal Ballet twenty years ago, although she had to wait more than a decade for her debut as Giselle (with Carlos Acosta), back in 2009. It seems that having seen the role from the various vantage points of other characters (the main couple in the pas de six and Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis) enabled a rich veneer to be imagined onto her own interpretation when the opportunity finally arose. 

Nuñez is now nothing short of extraordinary in this quintessential Romantic role as the peasant girl who dies for love; deceived by a Count who seduces her while engaged to another; plucked from her grave to join the supernatural Wilis (the ghosts of girls who have been jilted and died before their wedding day). Words are poor tools with which to do justice to her sublime artistry. She convinces in so many ways. It seems superfluous to note – but one must – that she dances with impeccable artistry: each line softened into the luminous expression of a romantic ideal; each jump, a poetic and natural action; her whole performance divided into the corporeal and the ethereal, but united by the powerful aesthetics of Romanticism.      

Marianela Nuñez as Giselle in the Royal Ballet's Giselle
© Helen Maybanks | ROH, 2018

In both her human and supernatural state, we see the same nobility of spirit, the joyful vulnerability and the eloquent empathy for goodness that attracts Count Albrecht (in the duplicitous guise of the peasant, Loys). I have always felt that the complete absence of a father may likely mean that Giselle’s mother, Berthe (another experienced and charismatic portrayal by Elizabeth McGorian) was herself once seduced by an aristocrat. It goes some way to explaining the fatal attraction.  

Illness accounted for a late substitution, in the role of Albrecht, with Vadim Muntagirov replaced by Federico Bonelli (whose own debut in this role was back in 2004). Such late substitutions are never easy but Bonelli and Nuñez made a seamless transition, as if they had been rehearsing together for weeks. Bonelli is a danseur noble, princely through and through, and the most reliable of partners. He is particularly adept at achieving a sympathetic response for such a dubious character. 

Bennet Gartside is another to bring years of experience to this production, having made his debut as the hapless Hilarion, the village heartthrob (before Loys came along), in 2002. From the familiarity of his opening interaction with Berthe to the fatal revelation of Albrecht’s deception, we see a good man brought low by the green-eyed monster; the goodness returning for his own midnight vigil at Giselle’s forest graveside, a pilgrimage arrested by the vengeful Wilis who dance the wrong man to death.   

As Myrtha, Tierney Heap was an imperious and alabaster Boadicean Queen, a powerful commander of the ghostly host of malevolent sylphs, well supported by her twin attendants, Anna Rose O’Sullivan (Moyna) and Beatrix Stix-Brunell (Zulme), leading a superbly-drilled corps of Wilis, moving with gossamer unity. 

The Act 1 pas de six was led superbly by Alexander Campbell and Yasmine Naghdi (perhaps destined to graduate into a great Giselle of the future) with strong support from Elizabeth Harrod, Calvin Richardson, Meaghan Grace Hinkis and Joseph Sissens. Olivia Cowley was suitably haughty as Albrecht’s betrothed, Bathilde; her iciness a necessary impetus to propel our sympathy towards the wayward fiancée.

Marianela Nuñez (Giselle) and Federico Bonelli (Albrecht) in the Royal Ballet's Giselle
© Helen Maybanks | ROH, 2018

The essence of Giselle lies in the distinction between the daytime reality of the village with its class distinction between peasants and nobles (cleverly portrayed by both classes occupying opposite wings of the stage in Giselle’s suicide scene); and the supernatural world of the forest at night with the combined gender and spiritual distinction between the Wilis and their male victims. The enduring popularity of Giselle lies in the Romantic ideal of pure love overcoming death (and deception) as the spirit of Giselle protects Albrecht from the Wilis long enough for him to survive until the bells that signify dawn. 

I would highly recommend Peter Wright’s evergreen and delightful production but – unsurprisingly, with such all-enveloping quality of performance, the whole run was sold out even before this opening night. It is well worth the queue for day-tickets and returns.