Sarah Kaufman
Sarah Kaufman
Critic

Paris Opera Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ soars at Kennedy Center

With its pinpoint details and intoxicating immersion in the romantic era, the Paris Opera Ballet’s “Giselle,” which opened Thursday night, seems to come to us from another world. But another aspect of its genius lies in how this production, the most perfectly realized account of the popular work to appear at the Kennedy Center in memory, connects the ballet to our time.

This sharp-etched drama between a virtuous commoner and an unscrupulous blue blood resonates with particular force. Especially when you consider the Occupy Wall Street protests. With unresolved class conflicts of our own, we are not so far removed from our 19th-century brethren.

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The ballet’s peasant heroine and her energetic young friends could very well be dancing under a banner reading, “We Are the 99 Percent.” And who is Albrecht, the nobleman whose betrayal drives Giselle to her death, but a predatory 1-percenter?

If linking this 1841 work to the Zuccotti Park and McPherson Square encampments seems like a stretch, consider that the romantic movement was born in the aftermath of the American and French revolutions. Surely Thomas Jefferson would have loved this ballet, which shows the aristocracy preying on the common folk, sweeping into a village and demanding to be served, and elevates a simple girl into a moral and spiritual savior.

In the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisitely clear storytelling, drawing closely on the original, you feel some of that revolutionary energy. (The company’s historical ties to the premiere by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot is a point of understandable pride; a program note tells us that Thursday’s performance was the troupe’s 760th.) It’s in the character of Hilarion, the gamekeeper who loves Giselle and tries to warn her of Albrecht’s deception.

One of the chief pleasures of this production is that this often minimized role, the third point of a tragic love triangle, comes to the fore with righteous zeal, especially as danced Thursday by Vincent Chaillet. We saw him process all the clues and act on his conclusion, looking Albrecht square in the eye as he denounces him in front of the crowd. Even the music palpitates at this moment. Consider Hilarion the balletic godfather of individualism.

Bright, fresh energy coursed through the entire cast. It has been 19 years since the Paris Opera Ballet last performed here, and I have relished the memories of the dancers’ willowy physiques, beautifully shaped feet and musical sensitivity ever since. All that is present, but the dancers’ buoyancy surprised me. How uniformly light and airborne they were, from the corps dancers to the stars.

There was an extraordinary level of excellence in all ranks and a thorough familiarity with the romantic ballet style: the suppleness of the torso; the softened, modest proportions. The sheer human grandeur, expressed in the simplest ways, had this hardened critic near tears at several points. One of them was a choreographic feat I’ve seen a hundred times, yet never seen before: A pinwheel suddenly materialized out of interlacing rows of dancers like the wind lifting from a field.

Aurelie Dupont’s Giselle arose naturally from all this lightness and ease. You could believe the Rhineland’s autumnal glow fed her warmth and effortless gaiety. Her virtuosity — and it was considerable — was all in her weightlessness. No legs thrown to her ear, no steely poses; she was entirely of the ballet’s time.

From his first headlong, excited steps onstage as Albrecht, a Silesian prince disguised as a peasant to woo the local beauty, Mathieu Ganio told us a foolhardy plan was afoot. He delicately balanced noble poise with hints of anxiety; for instance, he nervously scanned for spies while Giselle’s back is turned. Yet the way he lifted her chin toward his, to allay her nerves, was unaccountably moving.

Another lovely detail: In the second act, as he made his way to Giselle’s grave, a grieving Ganio inhaled the lilies he was carrying, then glanced toward the tombstone with a look that spoke of the emptiness of the sweet scent when it’s the girl he longed for.

These dancers focused on storytelling, rather than technical bravado — every one of the principals paid careful attention to expressiveness and, especially, to mime. It wasn’t the Opera House’s air conditioning that delivered a chill as Berthe, Giselle’s mother (Amelie Lamoureux), launched into a deeply musical and dramatic mime passage. It was the palpable force of her mute account, in which she told the story of the Wilis, the ghosts of maidens who died before their wedding day and haunted the nearby forest forever after.

The foretelling of Giselle’s fate has never been so riveting. Afterward, the assembled crowd was shaken, some reacting as if they’d been made physically ill. By contrast, Giselle and Albrecht shrugged off Berthe’s warning, making this scene a powerful setup of the tragedy that would engulf them.

As the curtain rose on an empty stage, the Act 1 set drew its own applause. Rightly so: It was designed by the Russian painter and great friend of ballet Alexandre Benois in 1924 (as were the costumes), and it depicts rocky Rhineland crevasses and mountainous peaks that give you the urge to climb. Too often, sets enclose a ballet, emphasizing the confines of the stage, but this one lifted the imagination up, up, up to limitless space.

Likewise in the forest graveyard of Act 2, we saw eerily tangled tree limbs but their canopy was somewhere out of sight, stretching toward the moon.

Conducted by Koen Kessels, Adolphe Adam’s score felt as crisp as October. It’s amazing how urgent and singing this all-too-familiar music sounded, and how capable of stirring sensations that have no names, through Kessels’s deft dynamic contrasts.

As the final notes hovered, the ballet’s revelations were not yet over. With its sky brightening as the sun rose, the ruins of a church grew faintly visible through the trees, as if to comment on the impermanence of man-made creations and the enduring power of nature. In an evening filled to the brim with meditative glories, this sight was a final, magnificent offering.

The Paris Opera Ballet performs “Giselle” at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday afternoon, with cast changes.

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