Clara Mousseigne and Antonio Conforti © Benoite Fanton

Ashton’s “La Fille Mal Gardée” in Paris

The Paris Opera Ballet revisits a pure English classic, with witty enthusiasm and bewitching debuts.

By Alessandro Bizzotto


No ballet can warm up the soul and provide such a stream of outright joy as La Fille Mal Gardée. There is no spell, no spiteful revenge, no drama nor any hyperbolic feelings, which is somehow rare in classical repertoire.

It couldn’t have been anyone but Frederick Ashton to create the most iconic and loved version of this ballet, that was firstly conceived in 1789 – from the day of its opening night, on January 28th 1960 at the Royal Opera House in London, his La Fille Mal Gardée has been considered a great classic.

Earthy and authentic characters bring the story to life. Lise, the title role, the wayward daughter of widow Simone. Colas, the farmer she is in love with and who wants to marry her. Alain, the innocent and clumsy son of the proprietor of a vineyard, whom her mother wants Lise to marry. And while the narrative may have a few caricature elements, its mood is always real and genuine – her mother, who owns a prosperous farm, might have economic and social aspirations, but Lise’s reciprocated love for Colas will find its way.

Set in what is supposed to be the rural France of the 18th century but what is actually the English countryside Ashton loved, the ballet entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet in 2007. It is a delight to see two new shows of this British classic performed by the French company, halfway through the run of performances the Paris Opera presents this season. You never get tired of watching Ashton’s masterwork.

Hortense Millet-Maurin and Antoine Kirscher © Benoite Fanton
Clara Mousseigne and Antonio Conforti © Benoite Fanton

On March 25th, the Palais Garnier was crowded to attend a double debut in the leading roles. Nineteen-year-old soloist Hortense Millet-Maurin is Lise and first soloist Antoine Kirscher is Colas. The couple is blissfully ravishing.

Ashton’s choreography is everything but easy: it demands softness as well as exactitude, powerful jumps alongside measure and grace. Hortense Millet-Maurin nonetheless has a crystalline technique and is in total command of the steps – she luxuriously uses her shoulders and legs without being too coquettish, and the grace of her glances makes it irrevocably clear that she won’t give up her dreams of happiness.

Antoine Kirscher explosively enters the stage as a tornado of romantic enthusiasm. As he jumps, airy and sharp, it is evident the story can only have a happy ending. Kirscher is elegant and has a polished approach to the role, yet he keeps a sort of buoyant quality which impeccably suits a character that’s not a prince, but a peasant – he is never too rustic, but his simple and ardent manners are wonderfully combined with the choreography.

The Act One ribbon pas de deux is a sight for sore eyes. Millet-Maurin and Kirscher gorgeously play with the pink ribbon, eloquently showing how much in love Lise and Colas are – there are both a crisp naïveté and a tactile tension in the way they intertwine with the ribbon, play carriage driving and form the cat’s cradle.

As ungainly Alain, Théo Ghilbert has a sort of pure simplicity among his qualities, and he dances the character with stunning and unexpected compassion.

The show is a crescendo. Hortense Millet-Maurin and Antoine Kirscher are dynamite in their second Act One pas de deux. Millet-Maurin proves to have also a fine sense of comedy besides an exquisite style, and Kirscher cares about showing Colas’ depth of feelings and a poetic, all-encompassing love.

She would just need to keep smiling also in a couple of technical difficulties. And he seems tense in his turns at times. But it doesn’t matter – their chemistry is terrific and they both have an expressive presence which helps them dancing Ashton’s challenging choreography with silvery vitality.

If she was livelier and more flirtatious in Act One, Millet-Maurin becomes both thrilled and delicate in the Act Two pantomime, when she dreams about marrying Colas and having three children. And when, after being hiding in harvested grain, Kirscher’s Colas jumps out to Lise’s embarrassment he replies he wants ten children with a sparkling blend of impetuous mockery and seductive suggestiveness.

The romantic Act Two pas de deux is the worthy finale of what ends up being a triumph of flair and brio – Millet-Maurin and Kirscher can find in La Fille both lyricism and bright sparks of humour.

Two nights later soloists Clara Mousseigne and Antonio Conforti are Lise and Colas. It is their second show after debuting one week earlier.

Their partnership work and their way of living the story is slightly different. Conforti especially deals with the role of Colas more loosely – he is light-hearted, more similar to a happy-go-lucky boy who doesn’t worry too much about the future.

Mousseigne demonstrates to be an extraordinarily polished technical dancer – she combines strong pointe work and a very subtle use of her upper body.

Their first meeting is both tender and witty. He has a nice musical phrasing and is a solid partner, and she makes immediately clear she is perfectly able to give life to an effervescent heroine enveloping the audience with bravura and smartness. They can politely dance with the ribbons and laugh at Alain or at widow Simone, but in the scene with the butter churn Conforti shows a sensual attraction that is beyond simple flirtation.

Aurélien Gay portrays Alain with a rare combination of ingenuousness and comedic timing – he is irresistibly cheerful; you can’t help empathising with him.

In her second pas de deux variation, Clara Mousseigne shows a strength that darts with shining confidence through the choreography. Antonio Conforti dances with both self-assurance and unaffected good humour.

The comedy tickles as the love story keeps flowing. In Act Two, when Colas eavesdrops Lise imagining her married life and then surprises her, Mousseigne surrenders to Conforti’s voluptuous kisses on her arm and neck with an amused yet vibrant sense of pleasure.

Their finale is a feast. Mousseigne is flawless in the pas de deux and in the joyous coda, swiftly turning and then freezing on pointe holding her arabesque. Even though his jumps were not particularly vigorous in Act One, Conforti now boldly executes his series of turns à-la-seconde and fouettés without hesitation. Her neat precision well marches his jaunty exuberance – when they leave the scene for the last time, before the curtain falls, they are so rapturously overjoyed you cannot think of a better happy ending.

Hortense Millet-Maurin and Antoine Kirscher © Benoite Fanton


Hortense Millet-Maurin and Antoine Kirscher © Benoite Fanton

Both Simon Valastro and Florimond Lorieux have something of an unsettling villain as widow Simone, but their comic rhythm never slows down.

And, when right before the end Alain gets back through the window looking for his iconic red umbrella and eventually finds it, you can just burst into a laugh and applaud – so does the audience of the Paris Opera, that warmly salutes both Théo Ghilbert and Aurélien Gay when they rejoice in leaving widow Simone’s house with the umbrella. Alain evidently cares more about it than about the ring he was supposed to offer Lise. After such a finale, you can’t leave the theatre in a bad mood.