Saturday, February 12, 2011

Giselle: Lopatkina 2011/Mezentseva 1979

Uliana Lopatkina
(Photo N. Razina)
Giselle is my favorite ballet. I first saw it on December 4, 1979 at the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theatre in Leningrad, with incomparable Galina Mezentseva in the title role, and I remember that performance as vividly as if it were yesterday. The story of betrayal, forgiveness, defying authority, and love transcending the vengeful nature of death, the story expressed purely by means of dance and music shook me to the core. This year, the Mariinsky Ballet performed Giselle at the Kennedy Center, and I went to see it, with Uliana Lopatkina in the title role.

I was struck this time by how laconic this ballet really is: there are no endless repetitions or lengthy, slowly building culminations—each emotional high point is made only once.

Another thing that I have always felt but couldn't quite formulate was how musically strong the score is. There many examples of that: the way innocent dancing melodies get distorted in the madness scene, mirroring the heroine's unsettled mind, and then they re-emerge as a shadow of  former selves in the second act; or Adam's unerring choice of a solo instrument, like a forlorn sound of oboe when Albrecht comes to Giselle's grave, or a hauntingly serene viola solo accompanying the Second Act's Pas de Deux.

Choreographically, it was enormously gratifying to see that the foundation and pride of the Mariinsky—corps de ballet—are still the best in the world: the technique is impeccable, and the uniformity and the synchronicity is the marvel to behold.
Photo by Susan Biddle for The Washington Post Photo by Susan Biddle for The Washington Post

Interestingly, in her 2005 interview, Lopatkina mentioned Mezentseva:
Q. I remember you said once that your favorite ballerinas are Galina Ulanova, Yekaterina Maximova and Galina Mezentseva. Of course, Mezentseva was the only one you had the chance to see on stage. Your choice isn’t surprising, but I'd like to know what you personally appreciate about these ballerinas?
A. They all had different personalities. Ulanova was sincere, she astonished balet-goers with her utter fidelity to human feelings. Maximova had exceptional physique and moved very beautifully. And Mezentseva—oh, she was serene, she was a queen, she had poise, beautiful lines and a profound dramatism. She cast a spell effortlessly. The strongest impression anyone has made on me was Mezentseva with her Dying Swan.
Dissanayake, N. Interview with Ulyana Lopatkina. Ballet Magazine, Jun/Jul, 2005
Thanks to the YouTube's magic, we can now compare two performances separated by 30 years. In the current staging, the madness scene seems to have been slightly abridged. As far as Albrecht's part is concerned, I am not sure if it has been simplified choreographically or Zaklinsky back then was simply technically stronger than Korsuntsev now. Overall, today's performance, crystalline, beautiful, and choreographically pure as it was, seemed not as emotionally charged and dramatic as the one I saw 30 years back. (The recordings below are from 1983, after Mezentseva recovered from the devastating achilles tendon rupture in the early 1980s. I saw her in 1979, before the injury.)

Conceptually remarkable in this staging—and Sarah Kaufman made this point in her review—was the reversal of the balance of power in the first and second acts: in the first act, Albrecht is strong, while Giselle is growing weaker; in the second, she is growing stronger as he is weakening.

Kaufman, S., Mariinsky's ‘Giselle’: Less is more, Washington Post, February 10, 2011

Uliana Lopatkina
(Photo N. Razina)