Is "Giselle" the greatest of classical ballets, as some connoiseurs believe? After seeing three good performances of it, I'm inclined to agree. "Greatest" will always be a subjective term; but despite its old-fashioned quaintness, even campy aspects at times, there are moments in "Giselle" that give the most intense balletic pleasure.
For me, most of them come in the second "white" act, which when well done is filled with images that linger in the memory.The ballet is quite different from the Petipa classics of the Russian school, which of course it preceded. Its Gallic character persists (despite its many years' residence in Russia), with a certain delicate intricacy that suggests something of Bournonville. And the supreme test of the prima ballerina is how well she defines the hovering, loving presence of a guardian angel, as she assists Albrecht through his ordeal by dance.
Leading the season on opening night was Lisa LaManna, who concludes her Ballet West career with these performances. It's a time for kudos to this consistent dancer, who always adds sparkling charm to whatever she does, and her Giselle is no exception.
The minute she steps from her doorway, suffused with girlish happiness, you know she will give the role her best shot. Her carefree first act pantomime and display dancing are secure and engaging, her mad scene has perhaps the greatest dramatic intensity she has yet projected, and her second act dancing is of gossamer texture.
Robert Arbogast is her excellent partner, a long-limbed dancer of fine control who portrays Albrecht (who does have his caddish aspects) as sympathetically as possible.
Erin Leedom's blond beauty, natural delicacy, strength and fleetness all accord well with the character of Giselle, and she's ideally partnered by Jeffrey Rogers, who has finally matured as a danseur noble. The two convey a similar magical aura, and Rogers' many years of character dance have given him invaluable acting experience. As the most concerned of the Albrechts, he seems sincere in his attentions to the peasant girl, and appears to suffer most real remorse at her death.
As for Leedom, hers is a bright, lovely peasant, with a truly chilling mad scene. But she surpasses herself in the technical feats of the white act, while projecting an indomitable little spirit who hovers over the fainting Albrecht with the drooping, compassionate arms of an angel, then seems to become almost invisible as she disappears.
Wendee Fiedeldey pairs with Raymond Van Mason, who plays Albrecht more as a full-bodied philanderer in the first of the ballet, then settles into true remorse. Fiedeldey's is a haunting Giselle with many beautiful moments, but sometimes lacking in sheer energy and force, which must underlie the technical feats of this taxing dance.
The Peasant Pas de Deux is a spectacular show stopper with Jennifer Demko and Jiang Qi (watch those too-deliberate bows, though), and for their alternates, Christine Jacques and James Dlugokinski. The corps of peasant girls and men engage in many heartwarming ensembles.
Though a little shy of optimum numbers, the women's corps of Wilis project a ghostly feeling of druidic decadence, moving as if possessed through their forest glen in some spectacular choreography. (And yes, they do lead beautifully with the arms.) Lisa Lockerd is the best Myrtha the company has had, a dancer whose long-limbed grace and definite proud features seems born to command; though even a little more exaggeration in gestures would not be amiss.
This a gaslight opera of a ballet, a melodrama of the sort that flourished with the bel canto composers Donizetti and Bellini, who also loved mad scenes and supernatural happenings. Hence one welcomes the broadness with which the pantomime characters play - the anxiety-ridden mother of Bene Arnold, Hilarion's rough-hewn concern (Bruce Caldwell and Peter Christie), the lordly prince of Richard Bradley, and the kindly largesse of Marrie Hadfield's Princess Bathilde, who is allowed to be goodhearted and understanding.
Though the audence understands the rationale, live music is sorely missed in this production, especially since projection of the full dynamic and tonal color of the recorded music does not come across well. Salt Lake audiences are spoiled, and if they want to keep it that way, must come up with additional funds to pay the musicians.