Opening nights are always exciting, season openers even more so, and the anticipation in the air on Saturday night at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House for Giselle, the first program of San Francisco Ballet’s 2014 season, was high. This revival of the classic was created in 1999 by artistic director Helgi Tomasson, after Marius Petipa, Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli from the ballet’s 1841 debut, and the San Francisco Ballet delivered the end product with the finesse and classicism the ballet demands.

In the ballet, Giselle is a peasant girl living in a Rhineland village, all sweet smiles and gaiety, with a weak heart and a penchant for dance. She is in love with Loys, who is actually the nobleman Albrecht in disguise. Yuan Yuan Tan performed as opening night’s Giselle in a nine-performance run that features several different Giselles. Tan is one of the company’s most popular dancers and beloved to local audiences, yet the role of a bubbly, naïve young peasant girl was a tad difficult to buy from this most elegant of ballerinas. Davit Karapetyan, as Albrecht, was more convincing, magnificently regal and commanding, from his opening step to the last. Hilarion, a local gamekeeper who loves Giselle too, was played with flair by Rubén Martín Cintas, who sees in Albrecht not just competition but deception. 

Veteran Anita Paciotti offered a powerful performance as Giselle’s mother, Berthe; you could feel her despair at the way Giselle was flitting about, as she alternately embraced and reprimanded her too-spirited daughter. Her gravity and emotional depth was a welcome antidote to the flighty, enamored Giselle. 

A royal hunting party arrives, attired in splendid velvet costumes, their elegant demeanors a marked contrast to the star-struck peasants. The Duke of Courland and Bathilde, his daughter and Albrecht’s betrothed, are invited to sit and take refreshment. Tomasson’s revival offers a pas de cinq over the more traditional peasant pas de deux, and here, soloists Daniel Deivison and Hansuke Yamamoto gave strong performances, as did soloist Sasha de Sola (and again in Act II, as a solo Wili). Newcomer corps dancer Julia Rowe (a former soloist with Oregon Ballet Theatre) showed appealing soloist potential as well. Amid the socializing, Bathilde takes a liking to the spirited Giselle and offers her a necklace. Giselle is thrilled, Bathilde charmed, and the audience is wincing in sympathy at what is soon to come when identities are made clear.

Giselle, like Swan Lake, requires two roles from one dancer – the earthy, exuberant peasant girl in the first act, and the bereaved, ethereal Wili in the second act. Tan fares best when her character takes on the darker stuff. In one telling moment during Act I, mid-dance, she pauses, brings her hand to her heart and you see, in her panicked expression, that she understands all is not well with that heart of hers. Later, as Hilarion exposes Albrecht’s deception, we watch Giselle deconstruct. The instant the madness settled into her eyes and body – the change was palpable, electric – I found myself thinking, “Now we get to watch what Yuan Yuan’s really good at.” And she did not disappoint. The breakdown was complete, ungainly and horrifying, as all watched Giselle destroy herself.

Act Two of this ballet tends to steal the show, and this night’s performance was no exception. The scene takes place in a forest glade made deliciously spooky with curls of fog and nocturnal lighting (nods here to set and lighting designer Mikael Melbye and assistant Lisa Pinkham). Sofiane Sylve was extraordinary as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, offering the perfect blend of regal grace, mystery and solemn hauteur as she moved rapidly across the stage in bourées that seemed to barely skim the earth.

The Wilis – jilted ghost maidens who died before their wedding day – haunt the forest by night, taking revenge on any male they encounter. Act II belongs to the Wilis, the glorious ensemble of them in white tulle costumes. Saturday night’s corps of Wilis were spot-on in their precision of formation – their synchronicity in the famous arabesque sauté hop passages perfectly executed.

Hilarion, attempting to visit Giselle’s grave, is captured and danced to death. The scene is at once dramatic, effective, and a touch comical as the Wilis work him down and efficiently dispose of him into the nearby lake without a trace of remorse, or, indeed, emotion of any kind. Certainty no pity. Giselle, however, fights to protect the grieving Albrecht, who has also come to Giselle’s grave and is set to suffer the same fate as Hilarion.

Tan offers a stellar performance in Act II, as does Karapetyan. His desperate attempts to stay alive as he’s being danced to death produce impressive entrechat-quatre jumps, one after the other, higher, ever more powerful, impeccable technique throughout. Exhausted, he collapses finally, with Giselle still hovering close. Only the imminent arrival of dawn, forcing Myrtha and her Wilis pull back and retreat to their graves, allows Albrecht to leave with his life, albeit one without his eternal beloved. 

The night’s music, composed by Adolphe Adam (with additions from Burgmüller, Minkus and de Cou) was as gorgeous and affecting as the dancing. Hats off to Music Director Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra for their achingly beautiful accompaniment to a timeless classic of a ballet.