American Ballet Theatre began the second of its three weeks at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night in capital condition, with a performance of "Giselle" that was a model of style, taste, verve and refinement.
To get reservations out of the way, it was not, for this observer at least, one of those mystically transporting occasions when one surrenders wholly to belief in the reality of the characters and their plight. Ultimately, the performance lacked the cathartic force of tragedy -- however perfect in detail, it remained an enactment rather than a transfiguration.
It was, however, a notably beautiful enactment -- consistent in tone, harmonious in form, faultlessly sustained in dramatic tension.
The performance had, to start with, the vast benefit of Natalia Makarova as the susceptible peasant maiden, Giselle, and Anthony Dowell as Albrecht, the nobleman who breaks her heart but is then saved from the Wili's supernatural vengeance by her forgiveness and love. Both were superb. In ACT I, Makarova gave us a demurely reserved Giselle, marked for doom from the start. In her mad scene, she seemed not so much wildly berserk as shocked into a coma of irrationality and hallucination. As the heroine's ghostly reincarnation in Act II, she danced with that uncannily fleet and fethery lightness that is her trademark in the role, projecting a sorrowful compassion for her lover all the while.
Dowell's Albrecht had some different inflections from those we are used to from him in this role, but he was as convincing as ever and danced with particular authority and elegeance. In the first act, the full measure of his own anguish and guilt didn't dawn on him until Giselle's last crazed moments, when it hit him like a sledge.
In the concluding act, he was a picture of noble contrition, at the end -- this a new touch -- driven from the stage in a surge of intolerable grief
This was also a performance whose excellence extended to every rank and station. There was, for example. Cynthia Harvey's aptly regal Myrta, danced with splendid bredth and attack; the austere composure of Marie Johansson and Janet Shibata as her aides; the corps of Wilis, who won deserved plaudits for their chilling rapport, and the sweet ebullience of Kristine Elliott and Warren Conover in the Peasant pas de deux. There were such telling characterizations as Frank Smith's sympathetically resentful Hilarion; Victor Barbee's stalwart Wilfred; Ruth Mayer's affectionately anxious Berthe, and Berthica Prieto's gracious Bathilde.
One must count in also, despite a blooper or two, the fine musical ministrations of conductor John Lanchberry and the Opera House orchestra. In sum, ABT at very close to its best.