This is the second video release of the famous Romantic classic Giselle by the Royal Ballet in less than ten years time. Not that you will hear anybody complain as this new Opus Arte disc features Natalia Osipova in the title role, and her performance is just as treasurable as the earlier one of Alina Cojocaru. Russian Osipova is one of the most significant dancers to emerge in the last decade. She started her career at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet and is now firmly established in the international dance circuit. She took many by surprise when she decided to join London's Royal Ballet in 2013.
Osipova's Giselle is extraordinary and you won't see many dancers today whose emotional energy is about as thrilling as the sheer quality of their dancing – check out for starters her variation in Act I, or her entrance in Act II. This is a very powerful performance indeed, dramatically as well as physically, and truth be told sits uneasily on this particular English production. As is often the case with dancers of Osipova's caliber performances with stylistically and temperamentally different companies create extra tension, but here it really feels like she is bumping against the confines of a staging that begs for rethinking. The alien effect is enhanced by Osipova's porcelain-skinned appearance which makes her stand out even more from the group.
It's not that the company dancing isn't up to par: on the contrary, there is some excellent solo dancing in Act I and the corps de ballet is beautiful in Act II. Yet the general approach and feeling is rather reserved and decorous, even predictable, compared to Osipova's startling expressivity.
Carlos Acosta as Albrecht, now in the autumn of his career, performs in a lower gear than he used to but remains a careful partner. The other main role, however, Hikaru Kobayashi's Myrthe, is unimpressive. (In both cases the older Cojocaru film was preferable with Johan Kobborg and Marianela Nunez).
The Royal Ballet dances Giselle in the 30-year-old traditional production from Peter Wright. In spite of the dramatic coherence, this version still looks and sounds wrong – even in HD. American dance critic Arlene Croce wasn't kidding when she nicknamed him Mr. Wrong back in the 1970s. Designed by John MacFarlane, Act I is painted in dull brownish colors; the "Rhineland" nobility looks as convincing as these contemporary Henry VIII banquet gigs in London; the tutus of the Wilis in Act 2 are awful drapes that have to suggest the moonlit Romanticism of Heine and Gautier; the forest looks like as if a herd of elephants just charged through it, flattening most of the trees; and in spite of some trimming work for the present revival, overall, MacFarlane's settings remain far too obtrusive and stifling.
Adolphe Adam's lovely score comes in a revised but not improved version by Joseph Horovitz. The thickened orchestration knocks off the sheen of the music and Horovitz's intervention bogs down as yet another futile attempt to find something in a simple and efficient ballet score which isn't there. Russian maestro Boris Gruzin leading the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House knows how to create a beautiful sound but his conducting is in places disconcertingly slow.
The picture quality of this Opus Arte release is magnificent; the HD cameras offer natural colors and reveal the tiniest details on faces, costumes and sets. This performance filmed live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in January 2014 was directed by Ross MacGibbon. He knows his trade, but even he cannot always resist chopping up scenes by zooming in on subsidiary figures while the main subject is what we need to see – do we really want Christopher Saunders's Duke in close-up when he is touching his moustache yet again while Osipova is dancing her variation in Act I? There are plenty of shots from the waste up, while a full shot would have been preferable.
The sound in both formats is first-rate as well, lifelike, warm and clear, the DTS-HD Master Audio adding convincingly to the theatre experience.
There are short extras showing Peter Wright, Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta talking about the ballet, and a glance of the preparation of the corps de ballet for the 2nd Act – all in all a mere tantalizing 10 minutes. The booklet includes an interview with Peter Wright.
In short, a release that no ballet lover should miss for another glimpse of one of the most exciting classical dancers of the moment, Natalia Osipova – even though this time it feels she is in the wrong production.
Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman