The audience was settling in for the overture. What it got instead was the Italian and Australian flags dropping from the proscenium arch and the orchestra breaking into each country’s national anthem. After momentary surprise – were we at the ballet, or an Italy v. Australia football match? – I realised the anthems tributed the cultural exchange about to occur. A signal that La Scala Ballet’s first visit to Australia is through Queensland’s QPAC International Series, a government-backed tourism and cultural diplomacy initiative that brings premier dance companies to Brisbane. It is wonderful to see this recognition of ballet’s universal power to delight and unify (and if it means more of these initiatives, then this reviewer would happily sing football-style anthems before every performance).

Claudio Coviello (Albrecht) and Maria Eichwald (Giselle), La Scala Ballet's <i>Giselle</i> © Darren Thomas
Claudio Coviello (Albrecht) and Maria Eichwald (Giselle), La Scala Ballet's Giselle
© Darren Thomas

Singing over, it was back to ballet business in Giselle’s autumnal Rhineland village. Marco Agostino’s Hilarion tenderly opened the ballet, placing a bouquet at Giselle's cottage window. Agostino, a soloist with La Scala, has performed an increasing number of leading roles for the company and his danseur noble potential shows even while playing the creeping gamekeeper. He was the freshest and most likeable Hilarion I have seen in a long while, with a warm openness and a tall, elegant bearing. Under Agostino, Hilarion’s usually dirty spying and underhanded tampering with other people’s belongings became, instead, like watching a compelling detective drama. By the time Act I was ending, Hilarion’s idea of blowing the hunting horn seemed like a bold and inspired stroke of Sherlockian genius rather than the repulsive grab of desperation that it traditionally is.

I was so busy cheering on Hilarion’s super-sleuthing that it would have been easy to forget the lead couple had they not danced with such graceful assurance. The title role was performed by the experienced Maria Eichwald in a guest artist capacity. It is always fascinating to watch different characterisations of Giselle, and Eichwald’s approach was to present extreme delicacy at the outset. From the first refined ballon of her Act I entrance, she was all shy gentleness and the subtle blooming of first love. While a more dynamic character arc might have strengthened the portrayal further, it seemed inevitable that Albrecht would be captivated by such fragility; and equally inevitable that his betrayal would crush it into the famous mad scene. Eichwald really shone, though, in Act II, where her muted dramatisation was a natural fit with the spirit form of Giselle. She possesses vast amounts of the rock-solid balance needed to create the impression of floating. Combined with her lightness, graceful lines, and meltingly high extensions, she was gorgeously ethereal.

Maria Celeste Losa (Myrtha), La Scala Ballet's <i>Giselle</i> © Darren Thomas
Maria Celeste Losa (Myrtha), La Scala Ballet's Giselle
© Darren Thomas

Claudio Coviello was a warm and human Albrecht with exciting power and precision in his jumps. Impressively, he placed this technical prowess in service of the character, rather than the other way round. I have often thought the technical bravura required for Albrecht’s famed Act II variation can tempt the dancer to focus on impressing the audience at the story’s expense. How does one do a bounding leap whilst convincingly appearing on the brink of death by exhaustion? The result is sometimes that the audience is forced to see the ballerino and his strength first, and Albrecht’s despair only second. But without sacrificing height or power, Coviello danced those double cabrioles, tours, and pirouettes with the overwhelming desperation and reluctance of a man condemned to die. This was no dancer fixated on his leap (or the audience response to it), but Albrecht in his darkest hour.

Also deserving special mention was Daniela Siegrist as a comically managerial Berthe; and Maria Celeste Losa, whose Myrtha achieved that wonderful balance of queenly sharpness and otherworld etherealness. The Peasant Pas de Deux was also sharp and brilliant, with sterling solos and absolutely synchronised partnering from Martina Arduino and Nicola del Freo.

Giselle’s charm also rises or falls on its corps, and La Scala’s were excellent. The Act I peasant dances showed precision in footwork and épaulement which became especially enjoyable in the petit allegro sections. The willis were even stronger, with the corps demonstrating a floating and soft port de bras and graceful line of the neck and head, uniformly aligned in that slightly forward-leaning Romantic style. The overall effect was simply stunning.

Which brings me to what I think every time I see Giselle: that although dance fads come and go, this ballet, much like Giselle herself, remains forever enduring in telling love’s power over death. Many of the opening night’s audience members were seeing Giselle for the first time, but their laughter, gasps of surprise, and bursts of applause demonstrated that this jewel of the ballet canon still touches the human experience deeply. As the standing ovations proved, La Scala did it justice. Ballet has power to delight and unify indeed.

****1