There's a heavy weight of expectation on any company which tackles Giselle. There has to be reverence for such an iconic work, the tradition and technique it enshrines and even the sensibilities of its time. But it cannot be a museum-piece. It has to speak directly to a modern audience, transcending its history to engage with them. Peter Wright’s production, brilliantly performed tonight, fully achieved both aims.

The essence of its success is the production’s clear contrast between the two Acts. 

Sarah Lamb (Giselle) © Bill Cooper | ROH 2014
Sarah Lamb (Giselle)
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2014
Act I is filled with autumn sunshine as the villagers bring in the grape harvest and dance in celebration. Giselle leads the dances and naively flirts with the disguised Duke Albrecht, who is looking for some light-hearted fun before his impending dynastic marriage. Within moments, they fall in love as the celebrations continue.

The choreography is playful and upbeat, so that Giselle, the Duke and the corps de ballet provide a masterclass in virtuoso classical technique, with neat fast steps, lovely lines and glorious extensions, punctuated by greatly executed grands jetés, beats and tours en l'air, especially from the men. Sarah Lamb, replacing the injured Natalia Osipova as Giselle, was delightful: skittish, sweet and girly, but avoiding any risk of sentimentality through perfectly timed and precise technique. In his debut as Albrecht, Matthew Golding was just the foil she needed. Equally precise, he used power and grace to dominate the stage but was also a completely secure and deferential partner. Kristen McNally, playing Giselle’s mother, mimed clearly and with emotion, to support the plot.

The dances were diverse and cleverly sequenced, moving naturally between solos, duets, the corps and an excellent pas de six (Yuhui Choe, Alexander Campbell, Francesca Hayward, Marcellino Sambé, Yasmine Naghdi and Luca Acri). I felt nicely “moved along”, amused and looking forward.

Things go horribly wrong very quickly. A hunting party arrives, including Albrecht’s fiancée. She and Giselle make friends and share their delight at being in love, neither realising that it is with the same man. Hilarion (Thomas Whitehead), who had always taken Giselle for granted, jealously reveals the deceit by showing Albrecht’s sword, with its ducal crest. Giselle plunges into madness, a visceral, chilling performance by Sarah Lamb, and seizes the sword to commit suicide. The autumn sunshine lingers, but tragedy has struck.

Artists of the Royal Ballet as the Wilis © Bill Cooper | ROH 2014
Artists of the Royal Ballet as the Wilis
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2014
Act II is set deep in the forest, in cold, foggy moonlight. Hilarion comes to grieve at Giselle’s lonely grave, but is haunted by the Wilis: evil spirits of jilted brides. Tierney Heap is imperious as Myrtha, their queen. Implacable in their hatred of men, the wilis pursue and kill by provoking insane dancing in their victims. They capture and destroy Hilarion before calling Giselle from her grave to join them. The stillness, perfect timing and precise positioning of the Wilis, dressed in white with bridal veils covering their heads and tiny quivering wings at their backs, was astonishingly beautiful, and sad. Tierney Heap’s bold performance created an edge of menace and the large corps, moving together so well, was imposing. 

Albrecht arrives, searching for the grave, almost oblivious of the spirits around him. An extended, intense pas de deux shows him feeling Giselle’s presence but at first unable to locate or touch her until he is reunited with her in a series of soaring lifts. Sarah Lamb was exquisite here: holding herself in stillness and control as the Wilis' dances build up, the creatures seeking control over Albrecht. Matthew Golding was again wonderful in this pas de deux. The lifts were astonishing in their speed, performed in confidence, and held securely. The climactic moment, when the couple embrace, was intense. I realised that I had been holding my breath for some time.

Sarah Lamb (Giselle) © Bill Cooper | ROH 2014
Sarah Lamb (Giselle)
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2014
A battle continues through the night, with Giselle protecting Albrecht from the worst of the Wilis' attacks, with him frantically dancing as they struggle to gain control. Dawn comes. The Wilis flee, leaving Albrecht still alive, but alone, and Giselle free at last to rest in peace.

The ballet was very well supported by the orchestra, in fine form and well directed by Barry Wordsworth. John Macfarlane’s designs and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting created a sensuous romantic atmosphere, while creating space for the dance and story to breathe.

This production really was classical ballet at its best. The mime, virtuoso dances in set forms, traditional set and costumes pay deep reverence to the original but some of the clutter has been simplified. The stage is more open and the dances cleaner and so the story is able to come through clearly, especially when performed as well as it was here.