Patrice Bart originally choreographed his version of Giselle for Paris in 1991 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its premiere. Bart’s work for Zurich expounds upon what is exclusively classical, the pulses of modern ballet being foreign to its realm. Music by Adolphe Adam 1803-1856) contrasts rousing folk-like melodies with sinuous passages drawn out to pull at the heart strings.

Yen Han (Giselle)
© Carlos Quezada

The ballet tells the tale of an innocent peasant girl who falls in love with a nobleman, Albrecht, completely unaware of both his station and his betrothal to another woman. When the truth comes out, her heart is utterly broken, and the fragile Giselle succumbs to insanity and then death. And that’s just the stuff of the first act.

Act 2 plays out the drama after Giselle’s death, by which time she has joined the circle of the so-called Wilis, a host of ghostly, nocturnal creatures who, as young women, had died before they ever married. The remorseful despair that Albrecht feels as the consequence of his careless seduction is a gut-wrencher of the first order. Ultimately, he, too, is threatened by the Wilis, but Giselle saves his life by dancing on his behalf in front of the heart-hearted Ghost Queen, Myrtha. As such, the ballet is a showcase for a full range of emotions and societal stations: from childlike innocence to mature experience, from the Heaven of pure love to the Hell of deceit; in short, one that covers the whole spectrum of love and loss.

Kevin Pouzou (Albrecht) and Yen Han (Giselle)
© Carlos Quezada

The real success of performance largely falls on the shoulders of the principals, and they couldn’t have been more convincing here in Zurich. As the young Giselle, first soloist Yen Han showed a spirited freshness and naiveté that made her awakening to love entirely convincing. Just so, when she learns of Albrecht’s deception, she showed her character truly ravaged, her long hair loosened, her steps erratic and agitated. Han’s command of technique was extraordinary, and her emotive capabilities of her interpretation, nothing short of legion.

Kevin Pouzou, as Albrecht, showed himself tremendously gifted as both dancer and theatrical presence. His attraction to the young Giselle felt real enough to make us forget he’d promised his heart to another. As Wilfried, Albrecht’s manservant and friend, Matthew Knight showed fine command of the choreography and the quick thinking his character has to do on behalf of his love-struck companion. As Berthe, Giselle’s protective mother, Mélissa Ligurgo had more of a character role, but the face she showed the devious Albrecht after her daughter had died was more than just an accusation: it showed absolute abhorrence. In the cameo role as Albrecht’s fiancée, Bathilde, the fine Mélanie Borel carried herself nobly, entrusted with two enormous Afghan hounds. Filipe Portugal danced Hilarion, the unlucky if aggressive local gamekeeper who had pledged himself to Giselle, and for whom she might have settled, had the handsome Albrecht not come along. Finally, in the role of ordinary farmer, Wei Chen showed us perfect timing and leaps that exploded like a firecracker on stage.

Yen Han (Giselle) and the Wilis
© Carlos Quezada

In Act 2, when Giselle has joined the Wilis in a sobering afterlife, the broad expanse of a much simpler, dark stage was largely defined by Martin Gebhardt’s subtleties in lighting. As Queen of the Wilis, Elena Vostrotina danced like one of the dead, her body stiff and unwilling to soften, her face set in a frightening stare. Dressed in huge white, bell-shaped tutus, the Wilis kept to their linear formations, whose precision and unity was commendable. Together, the dancers became a single body, their locked arms rendering them “floating” and otherworldly.

Kevin Pouzou (Albrecht)
© Carlos Quezada

Paul Connelly conducted the Philharmonia Zürich through Adam’s spirited score, Karen Forster’s haunting viola solo being a true highlight. Also particularly catching in Luisa Spinatelli’s stage designs were the gauze-like screens that hung before the stage to launch both acts, each one a soft, Romantic foreground to a pre-alpine setting that conjured up nostalgia for a bygone era. Spinatelli also designed the spectacular costumes: festive dirndls and grand hunting gear in subtle colours and trims for Act 1, then the white tutus against a simpler and grey background, both of which underscored the reality of cold death in Act 2. Finally, the preponderance of generous and supple cloaks, especially on protagonist Albrecht himself, not only reflected the notion of his concealing information, but also added a touch of glamour to the stage.