Paris Opéra Ballet
Harris Theater/Millennium Park Simulcast
June 27, 2012
By Lori Dana
It was a perfect evening. In the most literal sense, Wednesday’s performance by the Paris Opéra Ballet, presented by the Harris Theater in conjunction with the Grant Park Music Festival, was everything one might expect from the collaboration of giants in the world of the arts. This exquisite performance marked a couple of milestones for Chicago: the premiere performance of a classic ballet by the company that virtually invented the genre, and a free public simulcast of the same on stage at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Maximum attendance figures for the event resoundingly demonstrate that not only is arts appreciation alive in Chicago, but despite a dismal track record in public education, it is thriving.
Inside the Harris Theater, the crowd was not so different from the ever-expanding one on the Great Lawn that rolls out from the pavilion toward the gleaming box of the Art Institute’s Modern Wing. Concert attire ran the gamut from overalls to evening gowns. Buzzing with anticipation, the casually eclectic audience seemed better suited to talent night at an Adirondacks summer camp than to the performance of a legendary ballet company. But as the curtain rose on the first act of Giselle, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was an audience of serious ballet enthousiastes.
In order to understand just how extraordinary this performance was, let’s take a minute to consider the players. The Paris Opéra Ballet has a history that extends back to the 16th Century, when ballet technique was first brought from the courts of Italy to France. In those days, dance performances were strictly royal entertainment, performed by courtiers for the amusement of kings and queens. The infamous French “Sun King”, Louis XIV, founded the country’s first professional academies of music and dance, which evolved into the Paris Opéra and Paris Opéra Ballet. A symbiotic relationship was established between the two that has survived to this day. This is where ballet was born, and where it was eventually elevated to high art. That legacy was very much in evidence on stage at the Harris Wednesday night.
No less impressive was the musical talent in the orchestra pit. Maestro Koen Kessels is a Belgian native with a vast résumé that includes positions with a number of major European orchestras and festivals, in addition to guest conducting at the Paris Opéra and Covent Garden in London. Having worked extensively in opera, he is now concentrating his efforts on the ballet. In addition to a seven-year relationship with the Paris Opéra Ballet, he has also conducted at The Royal Ballet of Flanders, Vienna Opera Ballet and the Royal Birmingham Ballet. Earlier this month Maestro Kessels served as guest conductor with the Grant Park Orchestra for a program that featured Ravel’s Bolero and George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Many of the same musicians (the crème de la crème of such world-class entities as the CSO, Lyric Opera Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), make up the full 90-piece contingent that will accompany all performances by the Paris Opéra Ballet in Chicago this week. Unlike many American ballet companies, which have taken to using scaled-back ensembles or even “canned” music, this French institution is uncompromising in its musical standards. And what a difference those extra musicians make! The lush sound of those 90+ instruments creates a warm timbre that no high-tech surround sound system could possibly match. In the intimate confines of the Harris Theater, the collaborative energy between dancers, conductor and orchestra is palpable and incredibly energizing. With less than a week of grueling rehearsals behind them (including one on Sunday evening in which power in the theater was shut down prematurely, and the orchestra finished up in the dark), these performers proceeded to put on a show of unparalleled beauty and stunning perfection. The dancers’ flawless technique combined with a sense of unbridled joy in their performance was enchanting and unforgettable.
The story of Giselle is standard Romantic era opera fare: a peasant girl is spotted in a forest glen by a traveling prince who is (of course) instantly smitten. Fearful of being recognized because he is already bound to a mismatch with a haughty noblewoman, the prince sheds his fancy cloak and sword for the costume of a country lad and engages in an intoxicating flirtation with the innocent and lovely Giselle. When the prince’s true identity and the existence of his betrothed are revealed by a local gamekeeper (and romantic rival), a stunned Giselle loses her mind and eventually her life. In a nocturnal world inhabited by “Wilis”, the spirits of young girls who died broken hearted and unwed, Giselle is tutored in the ways of stalking earthbound males. However, when the Wilis set their sights on her prince, Giselle uses the power of her love to save his life.
The transition from the Slavic peasant charm of Act I to the ethereal and other-worldly universe of Act II represents a crossroads in the history of dance when, as the Harris program aptly states, “Giselle undeniably helped to assert the artistic autonomy of the ballet blanc, endowing it with its own imaginary world and choreographic identity.” The performance we enjoyed Wednesday evening (which was updated in 1991 and has been performed since 1998 using richly detailed sets and costumes from the classic 1924 POB production) dramatizes the transformation of ballet from an “opera without singing” to a more purely choreographic form. Act I, with its gilded lighting and lush backdrops evoking the 18th century paintings of Fragonard and Watteau and with its story played out by the dancers in courtly pantomime, certainly provided a window into ballet’s glorious Romantic past.
Its future (and that of the other performing arts) may now be inextricably tied to technology. The concept of greater public access to the arts via streaming video, simulcasts, podcasts, and live HD broadcasts, as well as expanded community outreach programs is gaining favor among arts administrators and the board members who fund their organizations. This ground breaking collaboration between The Harris Theater and Grant Park Music Festival, along with the Citizen Musician initiative and a wide range of community partnerships at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are at the head of the Chicago public arts movement. The only straggler among our top musical organizations is Lyric Opera, but with input from a new, progressive general director, the addition of a former CSO marketing guru, and the efforts of creative consultant Renee´ Fleming, we expect to see a program of HD broadcasts similar to those that have been so successful for The Met and the San Francisco Opera, as well as a possible simulcast of the 2012 season kick-off concert in Millennium Park.
Wednesday on the Great Lawn, twilight began to fall on a crowd of Woodstock-like proportions. The projection screen on the Pritzker stage seemed disappointingly small, but as the darkness deepened it appeared to increase in size, its width creating an exaggerated depth of field that turned the intimate Harris stage into a gigantic panorama. It was quite phenomenal to witness a group of more than 13,000 put aside their picnic suppers, conversations, even their ubiquitous smart phones, and sit in rapt attention as ghostly sylphs floated effortlessly across the enormous screen. In contrast to the collaborative intimacy of the indoor theater, out there the orchestra was more of a backdrop, although the sound was thundering, Even the distant boom of fireworks from Navy Pier couldn’t compete. The sound quality was great, and the soft and tender movements of the dancers on the screen seemed at one with the balmy lake breeze caressing our bare arms and lifting the hair from our dampened necks. We were all hypnotized.
This was ballet blanc, of which Giselle is the archetype. The corps de ballet, clad in identical, sheer white bell tutus with white circlets tracing through their hair, created flower-like patterns on the darkened screen as the the Wilis bobbed and whirled. The camera work was skillful. Dramatic angles accentuated the neo-Gothic tenor of the woodland graveyard where Giselle meets her fate and rescued her prince from his. As a black-clad figure collapsed on her grave, his arms full of white lilies, the lawn was silent. Even the traffic noise seemed to fade away for a moment. Then as Giselle’s lover rose from the ground, a collective gasp escaped the crowd as he walked free, leaving his velvet cape at the base of the cross-shaped stone.
Giselle featured libretto by Théophile Gauthier and Jules-Henri Vernoy De Saint-Georges, music by Adolphe Adam, Choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot (1841) transmitted by Marius Petipa (1887). The production was adapted by Patrice Bart and Eugéne Polyakov (1991), sets and costumes by Alexandre Benois (1924) realised by Silvano Mattei (sets) and Claudia Gastine (costumes) from the production of 1998.
4 STARS PLUS
This engagement is one of only three that the Paris Opéra Ballet will be performing in the U.S. this summer (in addition to Lincoln Center in New York and Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital.)
A few tickets remain for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances of “Epic French Masterpieces” by the Paris Ballet Opera at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Drive, Chicago.
For tickets call 312-334-7777 or order on line at …