Every eye in the house was dry. With "Giselle," that's not a good thing.
Miami City Ballet opened its season Friday with the perennially popular romantic ballet, and they did everything right - except to make you feel something. The performance at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Ziff Ballet Opera House was well rehearsed and cleanly staged, the set and costumes are lavish. But it was emotionally blocked, physically tense, musically flat and oddly devoid of drama. Not a good thing for a ballet that should offer an ecstasy of gorgeous heartbreak.
At the heart (or lack thereof) of this problem was Simone Messmer, dancing the title role for the first time. Messmer gave an impeccably executed performance highlighted by her technical strengths - clean, delicately sculpted, with shimmery light jumps and beats, and a willowy flexibility. But she was never convincing as Giselle, neither as the enamored, innocent young girl in love with Albrecht in the first act, or the ghostly sylph shimmering with longing in the second. And she had no chemistry with her Albrecht, Rainer Krenstetter, an able dancer with an elegant but bland style whose acting was mostly one-dimensional. In the famous scene where Giselle goes mad over Albrecht's betrayal, the summit of ballet acting, Messmer was unconvincing, and the scene finished abruptly, without a sense of shocked climax.
Another key issue was the playing of the Opus One Orchestra, led by Gary Sheldon, which flattened the expressive and musical range of the dramatic, lusciously melodic Adolphe Adam score. Like the choreography for "Giselle," the music is - or should be - emotional, urgent, yearning. But most of the color, the modulation, the highs and lows, were muted here - robbing the dancers of the musical energy and inspiration that should carry them and the ballet into life. It was like dancing on marshmallows.
The casting here is a bit of a puzzle. Messmer has been a favored performer since she was hired last season from American Ballet Theater, where she was a soloist. But she showed a similar combination of technical expertise and emotional cool in another ballet heartbreaker, the second act of "Swan Lake" last fall - where muted playing by the orchestra was also an issue. On Friday, her phrasing often seemed divorced from the rhythm and feeling of the music. Reyneris Reyes, who danced Hilarion, Giselle's village suitor who confronts Albrecht and is hurled to death by the Wilis for his pains, was a far more forceful and believable figure - the most compelling performer of the night, in fact. Which makes you wonder whether he could have brought Messmer to life if he'd been her Albrecht. And whether other performers - Tricia Albertson and Renato Penteado, and Kleber Rebello and Jennifer Lauren are also slated to dance the lead roles - would make a difference.
In their debut at New York's Lincoln Center last spring, Miami City Ballet was so full of energy they practically blasted off the stage. In contrast, Friday's performance was restrained, even tight - kinetically as well as musically. Perhaps the sense of constraint was meant to achieve a more subtle, restrained romantic style. But mostly, the dancers just seemed blocked.
Rebello, normally one of the company's most exciting men, and Lauren were practically gritting their teeth in the virtuoso Peasant Pas de Deux. Lauren, who can struggle with technically intricate parts, lacked the charm and pretty playfulness needed to pull off this show-off divertissement (and never managed to smile.) And though Kleber executed the powerful leaps and rapid beats of his solos, he too seemed unusually tense.
As Myrtha, the malevolent, commanding Queen of the Wilis, Jordan-Elizabeth Long was stiff, tight through the shoulders, and sometimes rushed through her choreography, never opening up to command the space, or summoning the force and power that makes Myrtha one of the most compelling figures in ballet. Even the normally sparkling Nathalia Arja, as one of Myrtha's attendants, seemed subdued. The 18 member corps, as the ghostly Wilis, spirits of jilted women who force caddish men to dance to their death, danced in sharply schooled unison, that created an appropriately chilling vision - but they too, were often tense.
Messmer and Krenstetter had some lovely moments in the second act, as the ghost of Giselle defends her former lover: a silken, floating adagio; Messmer's beating feathery feet as she hovered like a hummingbird; Krenstetter throwing his leg face-high as he arched back in pleading desperation. But at the ending, when Giselle recedes back into death as dawn breaks, leaving Albrecht behind, what should be a moment of delirious loss felt anti-climactic. Like this "Giselle."
If you go
What: Miami City Ballet in "Giselle"
When: 2 p.m. Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
Nov. 5 to 6 at the Broward Center, 201 Southwest 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale; Nov. 11 to 13 at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach.
Info: $20 to $189 at miamicityballet.org or 305-929-7010