As the curtain rose at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, the extraordinary set (designer Peter Farmer) hinted that something exceptional was at hand. We behold an intricate, lacy forest, and a vine covered cottage, all in rich sepia tones that seem to have jumped from some ancient 3-dimensional painting by a master artist. The ballet is “Giselle,” and under the baton of conductor Ermanno Florio, the beautiful music of composer Adolphe Adam begins to wrap the audience in its charms via the superb Houston Ballet Orchestra. The excitement begins to build, especially for the many young ballet students in the audience. Some of them had even entertained patrons on the plaza prior to the performance. Now the time had come to see a real ballerina in a professional production. They could not have chosen a better opportunity.
Dancing the part of Giselle, Lauren Anderson was warmly received by the audience as soon as she appeared on stage. From the first moment she danced with a light and airy delicacy that was most appealing. Phillip Broomhead, dancing the role of Count Albrecht, joins her in a graceful first encounter. Unaware that he is a Count, Giselle thinks the disguised Albrecht is a villager named Loys. Meanwhile, Giselle’s mother, Berthe (primly played by Martine Harley), is determined Giselle should marry the forester, Hilarion. Ms. Anderson shows she is both dancer and actress as she alternates between shyness in the presence of Loys, and intimidation when confronted by Hilarion.
Now the village maids arrive with stunning grace, lovely in their colorful peasant frocks. The dresses are in autumnal colors of pumpkin gold that light up the stage, and the Marius Petipa choreography is exquisite. Giselle and Loys join the peasant girls in dancing that could not be more joyful. But Berthe, alarmed at Giselle’s frolicking with Loys, intervenes and spirits her away. Meanwhile, Hilarion is discovering the truth that Loys is, in fact, Count Albrecht.
Now the royal hunting party arrives in an array of richly exquisite costumes (Also from designer Farmer). The gentlemen look like dashing musketeers with their handsome garments of burgundy and rust-colored velvet. They sport jaunty pheasant feathers in their caps. The group includes Albrecht’s squire, Wilfred (Nicholas Leschke), and is led by the Duke of Courland (Timothy O’Keefe). With the Duke is his daughter, Bathilde, Albrecht’s fiancée (Tyann Clement). Bathilde’s hunting dress, with its creamy textures and ornate golden trim, is yet another costume triumph that adds to the classic look of the production. Even during years when I have enjoyed subscriptions to the American Ballet Theater at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, I don’t recall ever seeing a staging quite so beautiful.
The merry harvest dances follow with the full ensemble. Featured dancers (Sara Webb, Parren Ballard, Sally Rojas and Jose Herrera) were uniformly excellent. Miss Lauren showed an ease and grace on point that was truly remarkable. The gentlemen combined both masculine precision and great delicacy. Act I ends tragically as Giselle learns Albrecht will marry Bathilde, and then takes her own life with a sword. It is a highly dramatic scene, but with its mayhem seemed to lack the clarity of focus that characterized everything that preceded it.
The Overture to Act II was sublime. Conductor Florio, with the orchestra, is an ever-present perfection rounding out a night of pure artistry. Now the nighttime forest has taken on an eerie quality. Enter the Wilis, the spirits of young maidens who have been jilted and died before their wedding day. Dancing as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, Mireille Hassenboehler redefines the phrase “lighter than air.” The ensemble dancing that surrounded her reminded me of a beautiful local production of “Giselle” by Karen Simon-Poland’s Woodland’s Civic Ballet, which I had the pleasure of reviewing several years ago.
When Giselle’s spirit arrives among the Wilis, Miss Anderson seems to float across the stage in her whirling and ghostly dance. Albrecht sees her as he grieves at her grave. As they dance together, Mr. Broomhead’s lifts seem both effortless and perfect. Then, Hilarion’s “storm dance” with the Wilis is riveting, while lightening flashes and brilliant dancing adds flashes of its own. When Albrecht and Giselle dance their anguished pas de deux, it is a dream-like vision. Their parting at sunrise, when the Wilis must retreat, is, as Shakespeare said, “Such sweet sorrow.” Giselle drops a blossom at his feet and fades away as dawn approaches. Perhaps this was the perfect way for the 2001 summer entertainment season to do a fade-out of its own.
(The Courier 8.18.01)