“Giselle” at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

By Sona Rao

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The Croatian National theatre is more than just a venue for performances, it is one of Zagreb’s greatest treasures. Built in 1895, the theatre epitomizes Eastern European grandeur. Before a show, the hall is filled with the hum of anticipation, the smell of rosin and perfume. As visitors walk through the entrance of the main auditorium, opulent paintings open up on the ceiling from corner to corner, laced with ornate gold margins and angelic statues that line the balcony box seats. In unison, the architecture, music, and ambience focalize at the stage, where a story unfolds with through the art of ballet. Inspiring awe amongst its visitors, the Croatian National Theatre is a masterpiece that features performances from classic ballets to contemporary works. With Eastern Europe’s elaborate history of ballet performance, there is no better way to experience ballet than to see Giselle, a timeless classic, with live orchestral music in the Croatian National Theatre.

Giselle is a story of love, loss and pain. The Croatian ballet kept the original choreography by Jean Corralli and Jules Perrot in France in 1842. Through innovative design and production, the ensemble has revamped an old classic. The music, composed by Adolphe Adam, is the narrative and core of the piece that is worthy of taking the audience on a journey. The introduction of ballet to Croatia in 1876 started with artists from Germany, Vienna and Amsterdam; it became a long-standing appreciation that gives today’s performances a historical value that cannot be witnessed anywhere else.

The theatre itself is part of the experience. Built in 1895, it was modeled after performing arts theatres in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The main auditorium gleams from top to bottom with golden minutiae that frame nearly everything in the room. Crowning the theatre are the enormous ceiling paintings created by Viennese painter Alexander Demetrius Goltz that surround the centerpiece – a grand chandelier. Even the banisters in the hallway are adorned with brass swans. These unforgettable details add to the creative spirit of every performance.

The producers of Giselle take several creative measures to transform the classic piece. Dubravka Vrgoč, the general manager and artistic director of the Croatian National Theatre, said that her mission is to get performances to appeal to a young audience. To achieve this, she “directs classical pieces in a modern way.” For example, the producers use fog machines and cold lighting to signify the supernatural, a major theme in the ballet. The set is massive and takes visitors to the setting of the story. Ultimately, it is the choreography that influenced the performance the most; the dancers performed with remarkable precision and style that told the story with clarity. These elements combined provide a show that is unique from other interpretations of Giselle.

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The Croatian National Theatre’s pursuit for modernization puts classical pieces in a different perspective and the brilliant aesthetic of the theatre complements the experience. In the future, the theatre has plans for globalization. “We have a very diverse ensemble of dancers from Ireland, Austria, Poland, and Japan” said Vrgoč. “We are looking to do co-productions with international companies in the next 5 years.” Whether or not visitors are familiar with ballet, the combination of music and dance is so exceptional that it triggers a universally visceral reaction in the audience that culminates throughout the piece and surfaces in the special moment just before the crack of applause as the curtains come to a close.

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