Cojocaru’s fragile and strong Giselle in Hamburg

Hamburg Ballet, Hamburg Opera House
July 16, 2016

Maggie Foyer

John Neumeier’s Giselle, while remaining true to tradition in choreographic terms, offers a strong realist line in characterisations. For those nurtured on a village clothed in autumnal colours set in a Rhine landscape, Act 1 has the chill of a cold shower. Two cardboard cut-out houses and a few splashes of colour on the backdrop is all you get from designer Yannis Kokkos. However, there is no minimalism in the dance.

Alina Cojocaru, guesting with Hamburg Ballet is one of the great Giselles of our time. She combines fragility and strength and a heart bursting with love blinding her to Albrecht’s deception. Berthe, her mother, a moving performance from Miljana Vračarić, is blind; an interpretation that works on many levels particularly as a seer whose powerful sense of foreboding is actualised.

Modern readings often portray the hero as a thoughtless but basically decent man however the horseplay between Albrecht (Alexandr Trusch) and Wilfred (Graeme Furman) show them to be cads out for a bit of fun at the villagers’ expense. Bathilde (Emilie Mazoń) is also given a novel reading. Played as a naïve young girl, proud of the engagement ring on her finger but still clutching a cuddly toy. She strikes up a not unlikely friendship with Giselle which makes the denouement even more poignant.

Anna Laudere as Myrtha and ensemble in Giselle by John NeumeierPhoto Holger Badekow
Anna Laudere as Myrtha and ensemble in Giselle by John Neumeier
Photo Holger Badekow

The villagers have their fill of dancing: all the familiar steps in familiar places. They join in when Giselle is crowned queen of the harvest but are not around to watch the Peasant Pas de Deux, a joyful performance from Madoka Sugai and Karen Azatyan, which is danced for the benefit of the hunt party. Likewise, the mad scene is played out on a sparsely dressed stage with only Hilarion, a caring, sober minded Carsten Jung watching out for Giselle. She becomes quite violent, beating her head and body in her anguish while Albrecht, true to form, is on stage but with his back to Giselle and chatting to his titled friends. It is the Duke who notices and tears the sword from her hands. In the final moments her mother arrives, again predicting in mime, the fate that she knows awaits her daughter.

There is little trace of sentimentality in this production. Giselle’s Act 1 solo is a vibrant expression of her love completed with a whirlwind manège. Even Albrecht’s Act 2 solo, so often given a melancholy air, is delivered with the passion of a man clinging determinedly to life.

In the harsh setting of Act 2, the cross on Giselle’s grave stands as a sanctuary in a world of evil. The act opens as Hilarion and Berthe mourn their loss, she fully aware of the unquiet nature of this grave. The Wilis are a fearful horde, entering through a sepulchral gateway in the mist. While most of the choreography is extant, they occasionally break ranks, the less disciplined corps seeming even more dangerous and reaching a pitch as they shriek with delight when Hilarion meets his doom.

Anna Laudere as Myrtha was icily perfect, with shimmering bourrées and sculptured arabesque, while still retaining her womanly aura. Her acolytes, Maya Arii and Futaba ishizaki, Zulma and Moyna were exceptional: each position full of the charm of a nineteenth century lithograph and their jumps and pointes as silent as the grave.

Albrecht arrives transformed into a contrite lover and his duet with Giselle is an outpouring of their love. These fearsome Wilis gave meaning to Albrecht’s need to shelter behind the cross and the toll of the morning bell comes just in time as his dance to death is fiercely real. This act, played out in a mist of tulle and smoke and hovering on the cusp between love and death, rounds off a wonderfully satisfying evening.