ABT brings a haunting “Giselle” to the dark woods of Wolf Trap

Fri Jul 28, 2023 at 8:26 am

Hee Seo in the title role with Daniel Camargo in the American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle, performed Thursday night at Wolf Trap. Photo: Scott Suchman

The Wolf Trap audience was held in rapt silence during American Ballet Theatre’s transporting production of Giselle on Thursday night.

Ballet in an outdoor theater during the dog days of summer must be hard on the dancers. Fortunately, thanks to a later start time in the Filene Center, the temperature had finally dipped below 90 degrees. Frogs and insects accompanied many poignant instrumental solos, and the evening’s only lightning was artificial.

Giselle, a peasant girl with a weak heart, lives with her mother in a forest village. The local hunter, Hilarion, pursues her, leaving slaughtered game silently at her doorstep, but she is in love with another man. Unbeknownst to her, Count Albrecht has left his courtly life behind and disguised himself as a peasant. The shock of learning he is already betrothed to a noblewoman is fatal, and Giselle joins the ghostly ranks of the Wilis, jilted brides who take vengeance on men in the afterlife. Although Hilarion meets his end in their realm, Giselle’s love protects Albrecht.

Kevin McKenzie’s staging and adaptation of this ballet’s well-known Coralli-Perrot-Petipa choreography has many advantages, last on display when ABT brought it to the Kennedy Center in 2020. With the company now under the direction of former prima ballerina Susan Jaffe, who took over from McKenzie last year, the emphasis has been on the development of some new faces alongside veterans.

Hee Seo, a principal dancer at ABT since 2012, reprised her immaculate interpretation of the title character, seen at the last Kennedy Center outing. She struck the right balance between coy playfulness in the first act and the cursed spirit’s tragic evanescence in the second. Her impeccable technique stood out, as she twirled like an ethereal statue in the final scenes with Albrecht before dawn cut short the revenge of the Wilis in Act II.

Seo’s Albrecht, Daniel Camargo, joined ABT as a principal dancer last year. He leapt and extended with strength and grace, his noble bearing giving elegance to the character yet with an apt aristocratic disdain. The only minor weakness was in the consistency of lifts, which were slightly awkward.

The long arms and legs of Chloe Misseldine, another addition to the soloist ranks last year, gave an otherworldly menace to the role of Myrta, queen of the Wilis. While the first act was all pastoral light and grace, set during the village’s wine harvest, ABT’s second act is much darker, taking place against a haunted wood (scenery by Gianni Quaranta), with flashes of simulated lightning echoed by Wilis running or floating past (lighting by Jennifer Tipton).

“Giselle” by Libico Maraja.

Two dancers from the corps de ballet had a sensational turn in the peasant pas de deux, the highlight of the first act. Zimmi Coker, with her red hair and pert smile, was almost as dynamic as her consort, Jake Roxander, whose bounds and pirouettes, perfectly timed to the music, caused quite a stir. The women of the corps were supremely disciplined and unified, both in the peasant celebrations and as the coven of vengeful women in veils in the second act.

The best part of ABT’s extraordinary Giselle in many ways is the music. Adolphe Adam’s score, in spite of a few charming melodies, is second-rate. ABT’s expanded orchestration, made for the company by former conductor and music director John Lanchbery. adds extra woodwind and harp parts; this version gives extra oomph to the hunting music and the celebratory and tragic tuttis. Conductor David LaMarche presided over a sensitive rendition of the score by the musicians of the Wolf Trap Orchestra, featuring a plethora of excellent solo moments.

Giselle runs through July 28. wolftrap.org

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