The oldest evening-length ballet in the repertoire (it debuted in 1841), and still one of the very best, “Giselle” has been the favorite of balletomanes ever since there were balletomanes. And a favorite in Boston — the company offered it seven times between 1987 and 2009. The current presentation at the Citizens Bank Opera House, opening Boston Ballet’s 2019-20 season, is actually the company’s first since 2009, so it’s more than welcome. The staging, by former company principal and current ballet master Larissa Ponomarenko, is superb, and so was Viktorina Kapitonova as the opening-night Giselle. There was a hint of tentativeness at Thursday’s performance — most of the dancers on stage weren’t even with the company in 2009 — but this is a fine production that will only get better.
“Giselle” is set in medieval Germany, during the fall grape harvest. Gamekeeper Hilarion has his eye on village girl Giselle, but her heart has been stolen by newly arrived peasant farmer Loys, who pledges his undying love. Loys’s hand, alas, is pledged elsewhere: He’s actually Count Albrecht, and engaged to duke’s daughter Bathilde. When Bathilde visits the village, the truth comes out, and a heartbroken Giselle goes mad and dies.
The celebrated “white” second act, set in the forest burial ground where Giselle has been laid to rest, introduces the Wilis, tulle-clad spirits of women who were abandoned by their lovers. Led by their queen, Myrtha, these vengeful shades harry and dispatch the blameless Hilarion and then turn on Albrecht. When the newest Wili — Giselle — intercedes for him, Myrtha enjoins the pair to dance out their love, and though they don’t quite satisfy her, they’re still trying when dawn breaks and the Wilis must disperse. Giselle returns to her grave; Albrecht is left safe but sorrowful.
Patrick Yocum was Albrecht Thursday to Kapitonova’s Giselle. They were outstanding in last season’s “Coppélia” and “Cinderella”; here again they’re an attentive, well-matched pair. Yocum is not an exciting virtuoso or a nuanced actor, but he’s intense, his technique is solid, and as a partner he makes Kapitonova look good. His best moments were the tragic ones, over Giselle’s body at the end of the first act and her grave at the end of the second.
Kapitonova was a spontaneous, mischievous Giselle, lissome in her extension, plastic in her phrasing, voluble in her body language. Her mad scene eschewed histrionics in favor of a childlike bewilderment, and that carried over into the second act, where, almost in a trance, she became as much Albrecht’s protector as his lover. Giselle’s signature steps — rocking ballottés and teasing ballonnés and high-kicking grands jeté-passés — were pellucid; the traveling ronds de jambe could hardly have been faster or cleaner. In the second act she was dizzying in her low-attitude spinning and then dreamy in her développé into arabesque, and her backpedaling entrechats were exemplary. She gave the ballet the clarity and focus it deserves.
I liked Dawn Atkins’s sensuous Myrtha in a role that can be vinegary; she did generally well with her difficult arabesques penchées and chugging hops across the stage. The Wilis too seemed softer and lusher than is sometimes the case, and there were winsome brief solos from Lauren Herfindahl and Addie Tapp. I liked Paul Craig’s gracious, commanding Hilarion, a believable romantic rival. The Peasant Pas de Deux, however, didn’t quite click. Ji Young Chae was as light and effervescent as ever, but new soloist Tigran Mkrtchyan wasn’t always steady in his partnering or his jumps. It’s a new pairing, after all; they’re scheduled to dance Giselle and Albrecht next weekend.
Opening night invariably brings a few bobbles. One of the two Irish wolfhounds that accompany the ducal hunting party had no sooner arrived than it tugged its handler off in search of wolves backstage. And there was a mishap with one of the Wilis’ veils. Nothing that won’t get fixed in the course of the run. The Boston Ballet Orchestra, on the other hand, was in top form. The playing didn’t always sync with the dancing (that too will improve), but music director Mischa Santora paced Thursday’s performance with spirit and imagination, and there was wonderful solo playing throughout.
Music by Adolphe Adam. Choreography after Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa, adapted by Larissa Ponomarenko. Sets and costumes, Peter Farmer. Lighting, Brandon Stirling Baker. Presented by Boston Ballet with the Boston Ballet Orchestra conducted by Mischa Santora. At Citizens Bank Opera House, through Sept. 29. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org