Giselle – ballet by Adolphe Adam
Giselle (French: Giselle, ou les Wilis) is a romantic ballet in two acts. It was first performed by the Ballet du Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris, France on Monday, 28 June 1841, with Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi as Giselle. The ballet was an unqualified triumph. Giselle became hugely popular and was staged at once across Europe, Russia, and the United States. The traditional choreography that has been passed down to the present day derives primarily from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg.
The ballet is about a peasant girl named Giselle, who dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover is betrothed to another. The Wilis, a group of supernatural women who dance men to death, summon Giselle from her grave. They target her lover for death, but Giselle’s great love frees him from their grasp.
Librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier took their inspiration for the plot from a prose passage about the Wilis in De l’Allemagne, by Heinrich Heine, and from a poem called “Fantômes” in Les Orientales by Victor Hugo.
The prolific opera and ballet composer Adolphe Adam composed the music. Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot created the choreography. The role of Giselle was intended for Carlotta Grisi as her debut piece for the Paris public. She became the first to dance the role and was the only ballerina to dance it at the Opéra for many years.
The following plot summary is that of the first performances in Paris with Grisi in the title role. The plot changed slightly in details as the years passed.
The ballet opens on a sunny autumnal morning in the Rhineland during the Middle Ages. The grape harvest is in progress. Duke Albrecht of Silesia, a young nobleman, has fallen in love with a shy and beautiful peasant girl, Giselle, despite being betrothed to Bathilde, the daughter of the Duke of Courtland. Albrecht disguises himself as a humble villager called “Loys” in order to woo the innocent Giselle, who knows nothing of his true identity. With the help of his squire, Albrecht hides his fine attire and sword before coaxing Giselle out of her house to romance her as the harvest festivities begin.
Hilarion, a local gamekeeper, is also in love with Giselle and is highly suspicious of the newcomer “Loys” who has won Giselle’s affections. He tries to convince the naive Giselle that her beau cannot be trusted, but she ignores his warnings. Giselle’s mother, Berthe, is very protective of her daughter, as Giselle has a weak heart that leaves her in delicate health. She discourages a relationship between Giselle and Loys, and disapproves of Giselle’s fondness for dancing.
A party of noblemen seeking refreshment following the rigors of the hunt arrive in the village. Albrecht hurries away, knowing he will be recognized by Bathilde, who is in attendance. The villagers welcome the party, offer them drinks, and perform several dances. Bathilde is charmed with Giselle’s sweet and demure nature, not knowing of her relationship with Albrecht. Giselle is honored when the beautiful stranger offers her a necklace as a gift before the group of nobles depart.
The villagers continue the harvest festivities, and Albrecht emerges again to dance with Giselle, who is named the Harvest Queen. Hilarion interrupts the festivities. He has discovered Albrecht’s finely made sword and presents it as proof that the lovesick peasant boy is really a nobleman who is promised to another woman. Using Albrecht’s hunting horn, Hilarion calls back the party of noblemen. Albrecht has no time to hide and has no choice but to greet Bathilde as his betrothed. All are shocked by the revelation but none more than Giselle, who becomes inconsolable when faced with her lover’s deception. Knowing that they can never be together, Giselle flies into a mad fit of grief in which all the tender moments she shared with “Loys” flash before her eyes. She begins to dance erratically, causing her weak heart to give out. She dies in Albrecht’s arms. Hilarion and Albrecht turn on each other in rage before Albrecht flees the scene in misery. The curtain closes as Berthe weeps over her daughter’s body.
Late at night, Hilarion mourns at Giselle’s grave in the forest, but is frightened away by the arrival of the Wilis, the ghostly spirits of maidens betrayed by their lovers. The Wilis, led by their merciless queen Myrtha, haunt the forest at night to seek revenge on any man they encounter, forcing their victims to dance until they die of exhaustion.
Myrtha and the Wilis rouse Giselle’s spirit from her grave and induct her into their clan before disappearing into the forest. Albrecht arrives to lay flowers on Giselle’s grave and he weeps with guilt over her death. Giselle’s spirit appears and Albrecht begs her forgiveness. Giselle, her love undiminished, gently forgives him. She disappears to join the rest of the Wilis and Albrecht desperately follows her.
Meanwhile, the Wilis have cornered a terrified Hilarion. They use their magic to force him to dance until he is nearly dead, and then drown him in a nearby lake. Then they turn on Albrecht, sentencing him to death as well. He pleads to Myrtha for his life, but she coldly refuses. Giselle’s pleas are also dismissed and Albrecht is forced to dance until sunrise. However, the power of Giselle’s love counters the Wilis’ magic and spares his life. The other spirits return to their graves at daybreak, but Giselle has broken through the chains of hatred and vengeance that control the Wilis, and is thus released from their powers. After bidding a tender farewell to Albrecht, Giselle returns to her grave to rest in peace.