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American Ballet Theater's Gothic 'Giselle'

Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in Giselle. Photo: Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theater returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week with a Giselle heavy on the supernatural side of this classic work. The Wilis, the angry spirits of jilted maidens, should inspire fear, something that many productions miss in their fluffy, white softness. The ABT Giselle, the Coralli-Perrot-Petipa choreography staged by Kevin McKenzie, definitely hit its stride in the ghostly second act.

Other Articles:

Sarah L. Kaufman, A ‘Giselle’ that whirls with unusual lyricism (Washington Post, February 12)

---, Ballet dancers have weird and quirky pre-show rituals that would put any sports star to shame (Washington Post, February 6)

Carolyn Kelemen, Former Howard County ballerina is back at the Kennedy Center, this time as a soloist in ‘Giselle’ (Baltimore Sun, February 12)

Gia Kourlas, Skylar Brandt: A Ballerina Invests in Herself (New York Times, February 6)
The company brought back the beautifully matched pairing of Hee Seo and Corey Stearns, who were so heart-breaking together in their Swan Lake in 2017. Seo had an ideal combination of characterizations for the role: pert yet shy as the lovestruck girl, unraveled and distraught when she learns that the lover who has stolen her heart is already engaged to another, and wispy as vapor as the cursed spirit. Besides the finely tuned dramatic sense, Seo's infallible technique put her among the finest Giselles seen here in the last decade, including EunWon Lee, Svetlana Zakharova, Aurélie Dupont, and -- still at the top -- Diana Vishneva.

Stearns was no less accomplished in either regard, his strong body lifting Seo effortless and forming beautifully delineated lines. The score, performed with panache by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, has rarely sounded this good, made more lush and polished in the orchestration by John Lanchbery, who died in 2003. Conductor Ormsby Wilkins, who did not seem in his element conducting a much more complex Strauss score in Whipped Cream in 2018, shaped each halting phrase of the love music with exquisite sensitivity, helping to make the Act II pas de deux so moving. At its climax, when Stearns held Seo perfectly still above him in effortless lifts, it was as if she floated above him in the spirit world, only temporarily visible to him.

The set design helped create the forbidding sense of a forest haunted by spirits, with lightning flashes behind a large hollow tree (scenery by Gianni Quaranta and lighting by Jennifer Tipton). It was the severe Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, of the tall and somewhat icy Devon Teuscher that brought out the harshness of the scene. The edge of her movements and sharp face seemed to inform the cold precision of ABT's well-drilled corps, all clad in the traditional white (costumes by Anna Anni). One could only feel sorry at the fate of Hilarion (the proud, defiant Roman Zhurbin) as he faced the implacable wall of these vengeful spirits.

Giselle runs through February 16 in the Kennedy Center Opera House, with different casts and conductors.


Mirella Freni (1935-2020)

The news of the death of beloved Italian soprano Mirella Freni reached my desk just now. In paradisum deducant te angeli...

In some ways La Freni is responsible for my obsession with opera. In 1990, as a young music major from Michigan, I drove with a friend on my first ever trip to New York City during spring break. We stayed with his father in Brooklyn and spent the week taking in as much of the culture of the big city as we could. One morning I showed up at the Metropolitan Opera box office, hoping to buy a ticket for that day's performance of Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

The employee at the box office took one look at me and said the balconies were all sold out. What if price were not an issue, I asked, thinking of the credit card my parents had sent with me on the trip. He plopped down a fancy-looking ticket for a seat in a box, and I bought it. After all, Des Grieux bankrupted himself and ended up in debtor's prison, all for love of the frivolous Manon. What is money for, except to procure pleasures? I would not have to worry about paying off the cost until I got back to Michigan, and I didn't.

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Puccini, Manon Lescaut, M. Freni, P. Domingo, Philharmonia Orchestra, G. Sinopoli
As you may have guessed, Mirella Freni was starring in this production. The reviewer for the New York Times later wrote that she was by far the best part of the show, which is how I recall it. I sat in the box, treated very nicely by the mostly Italian family occupying it. I could not only hear every nuance of La Freni's voice, I could see the sweat rolling down her face. I had seen operas staged in Michigan, but nothing on the scale of what I saw on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera that day.

As it turned out, I had caught the tail end of a glorious career, and this was (I think) the only production of Manon Lescaut that La Freni sang at the Met. It was the perfect combination to create a lifelong devotion to opera. The friend I went to New York with was a tenor, and being his accompanist in high school was how I first got hooked on opera. I had gotten to know Manon Lescaut by listening to a recording with none other than Mirella Freni. I could not believe that the voice I had heard through my headphones was now coming out of the person in front of me on that stage. I was starstruck. The word Diva was invented because of reactions like the one I had that day at the Met. I left the theater on a cloud.

Although I listened to La Freni's recordings somewhat obsessively over the years since then, I saw her on the stage only once more. It was what turned out to be her final production, Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans, mounted just for her by Washington National Opera in 2005. She was 70 years old, and she was still fairly sensational. Three decades and a mountain of operas viewed since then, my first will always be Mirella Freni. May light eternal shine upon her.