SAN DIEGO — Three years ago, when the Bolshoi Ballet last brought its streamlined version of "Giselle" to Southern California, the production was brand new, and not very popular. Nearly everyone complained that Yuri Grigorovich had stripped the crucial narrative trappings from the romantic masterpiece and replaced them with inappropriate classical abstractions.
Some things, believe it or not, change for the better with the passage of time.
"Giselle," which the Bolshoi did not not include in its Los Angeles repertory earlier this month, showed up for three performances at the Civic Theatre in San Diego over the weekend. Grigorovich's choreographic inventions still looked more dancerly than necessary, especially in the ridiculous maneuvers concocted for the effete courtiers and mincing guards who accompany the Duke of Courland. The peasants still seemed oddly elegant. Sustaining the Soviet norm, formal mime remained scarce.
But, wonder of wonders, dramatic gesture has returned to this "Giselle." In some instances, dramatic gesture has returned with a passion, if not a vengeance.
The dynamic impact depended only on who happened to be doing what to whom. Grigorovich obviously allows his dancers considerable leeway in matters of expressive characterization, even in matters of costuming. With a different set of principals for each performance, he offered three vastly different interpretations of the ballet. Given the vicissitudes, the new commitment to theatricality fluctuated both in quality and degree, but it was seldom ignored. One couldn't say that for Grigorovich's "Romeo" and "Swan Lake" at the Shrine.
On Friday night, a technically correct yet generally pallid "Giselle" was led by Nina Semizorova in the title role and Alexander Vetrov as Albrecht. One sensed little cause for heartbreak.
Semizorova phrased the lyrical passages with graceful clarity, articulated the agitated outbursts with fierce precision, and adopted an all-purpose aura of dainty frailty--whether portraying lovesick innocent, betrayed madwoman or soulful ghost. Vetrov offered little to admire beyond lofty elevation and bravura facility in the trials of Act II.
Under the circumstances, the most compelling figure on the stage was Gedeminas Taranda, a Hilarion who functioned as an extraordinarily ardent, totally sympathetic, almost charismatic counterforce to the princely hero. For some reason, incidentally, the Bolshoi is calling the jealous woodsman Hans this year.
Sadly, Taranda was replaced at the sparsely attended Saturday matinee by Yuri Vetrov, a stock mock-villain who virtually faded into Simon Virsaladze's gauzy kitsch sets. Otherwise, this was an extraordinarily, reassuringly vital performance, dominated by Nina Ananiashvili's fleet and feverish, minutely detailed Giselle and Alexei Fadeyechev's nobly heroic, nonchalantly virtuosic Albrecht.
If only the Bolshoi were always like this.
Strange things happened that evening when Ludmila Semenyaka assumed the title role in place of the injured Alla Mikhalchenko. At 38, the once-wondrous Semenyaka should be at the peak of her career. Her performances this season, alas, have suggested an alarming decline. As Giselle, she seemed brittle, detached, oddly distracted. For all her style and authority, she settled for rote poses, slipped in and out of character at whim, and merely sketched the steps when undue complexity threatened.
Yuri Vasyuchenko complemented her as a self-absorbed Albrecht given to modest leaps and florid attitudes. No chemistry here.
The rather shaky, doubtless tired corps of Wilis was led by two rather earthbound Myrtas: a surprisingly taut Maria Bilova in the evening performances, a more fluid Nina Speranskaya at the matinee. Neither conveyed much of a sinister threat. Both simplified some of the traditional choreography.
The so-called peasant pas de deux proved more congenial for the incipient ballerinas, Marina Nudga (evenings) and Natalia Arkhipova (matinee) than for their respective cavaliers, the hopelessly strained Alexei Lazarev and the mildly energetic Mikhail Sharkov.
The locally recruited orchestra appeared to be sight-reading the score for Alexander Kopylov on Friday night, and not very accurately. At one painful juncture, the stoic conductor actually resorted to singing the missing melody for the errant strings.
The playing got better at the successive performances. Practice still makes perfect.
The San Diego audience, which paid $75 for the top ticket, invariably mustered at least a semi-standing ovation at the final curtain calls. It mustered no entrance applause for Semizorova, however, and insufficient enthusiasm to bring Semenyaka out for a bow at the end of her first act.