Is this ballet for you?
Go if: Balanchine said it best “Like Hamlet, Giselle is a classic: it is not only important historically, it also happens to be good (…) People go to see Giselle and to see ballerinas dance it for the same reason we got to see new interpretations of Hamlet: the work is such a good one that we always discover something in it we hadn’t seen before…”
Skip if: You’re thinking Giselle is more FAIL than FAB
Giselle: Alina Cojocaru. We also love Natalia Osipova and Svetlana Lunkina at the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky’s Olesya Novikova and San Francisco Ballet’s Lorena Feijóo.
Albrecht: The Royal Ballet’s Johan Kobborg; ABT’s David Hallberg, Mariinsky’s Igor Kolb and Denis Matvienko, POB’s Mathieu Ganio and Stuttgart Ballet’s Friedemann Vogel. For a completely different take on Albrecht try Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson.
Myrtha: Maria Alexandrova, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Gillian Murphy and Marianela Nuñez all make for very wicked Myrthas.
Giselle is one of the most important and popular ballets in history. It appeared when French ballet had just undergone a revolution with Marie Taglioni‘s appearance as a ghostly Mother Superior in the “Ballet of the Nuns” (from Act III of Meyerbeer’s 1831 opera Robert le Diable) where nuns in white tutus came to life in a 16th century moonlit cloister. Taglioni’s fluid and effortless dancing gave the illusion of weightlessness and caused a great sensation, paving the ground for the great “white ballets” from classical dance’s Romantic period. Giselle and La Sylphide (also led by Marie Taglioni) inspired ballets like La Fille du Danube, L’Ombre, La Gitana and La Péri, stories that depicted the impossible love between mortals and elusive fantastic creatures set in earthly backdrops of alpine villages, Scottish highlands and Spanish riverbanks and that borrowed heavily from Romantic poetry and painting.
Poets and novelists at the time were obsessed with the supernatural. One of them, Heinrich Heine, wrote about Wilis, young brides who had died before their wedding. They would rise from their graves in the evening and dance alone in the moonlight wearing their wedding dresses. With their beauty they would attract young men and seek revenge, making them dance until they died. Having read Heine’s story Théophile Gautier, poet, novelist and critic, imagined it as a ballet scenario. For the heroine he thought of rising ballerina (and his object of affection) Carlotta Grisi.
Gautier worked together with librettist Vernoy de Saint-Georges to flesh out the heroine’s character, addressing plot aspects linked to her death and transformation. When the concept was presented to the Paris Opera, composer Adolphe Adam and maître de ballet Jean Coralli were drafted to work on score and choreography. Though he wasn’t credited in the original program it is known that Jules Perrot (Grisi’s teacher and lover) also contributed to the production, especially with elements dealing with the main character.
Giselle ou Les Wilis premiered at the Paris Opera on 28 June, 1841 with Carlotta Grisi as Giselle, Lucien Petipa (brother of Marius) as Albrecht and Adèle Dumilâtre as Myrtha. The ballet was immediately declared not only a worthy successor to La Sylphide but also “the greatest ballet of its time”, a triumphant reception. Giselle remained in the Paris Opera repertoire until 1849. When it became outmoded the ballet was completely dropped (after 1868); it would only be seen again in Paris decades later as part of the Ballets Russes’ second Paris season, with Karsavina and Nijinsky in the lead roles.
Following its success in Paris Giselle toured around Europe, traveling as far as the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. This particular 1842 production was staged by Titus, a ballet master who recreated the ballet from memory. But in 1848, with Jules Perrot coming into the Imperial Theatres as ballet master, a new Russian version of Giselle was staged with Marius Petipa as Albrecht. This Giselle stayed in repertory until 1859 when Perrot returned to Paris. Next came Marius Petipa’s 1862 version, with several alterations to cater for the Italian virtuoso ballerinas of the time, most notably, the insertion of the Act I Giselle variation as we know it.
Subsequent stagings of the ballet are linked by some degrees of separation to the St. Petersburg production:
- Nicholas Sergeyev fled Russia with the Stepanov notations and first staged Giselle for the Paris Opera in 1924 as a vehicle for Olga Spessivtseva.
- The first British production (for the Carmago Society, 1932) also came from Sergeyev’s notations and had Spessivtseva as Giselle and Anton Dolin as Albrecht.
- Sergeyev revised his staging for the Vic-Wells company (later the Royal Ballet) in 1934. Alicia Markova was Giselle and Anton Dolin was Albrecht. From then onwards, the ballet remained in repertoire in Britain.
- Giselle was first shown in North America by Augusta Maywood in a 1847 performance at the Park Theatre, NY. Both ballet and performer were met with an enthusiastic response.
- In 1910 it was revived at the Metropolitan Opera House by Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin in a version that featured interludes from Glazunov’s Raymonda. Giselle wouldn’t be performed again in the United States until 1937, when Mordkin staged it for his own company (with Lucia Chase as Giselle).
- The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo also brought their own version to the Met in 1938. The production had Alicia Markova as Giselle, Serge Lifar as Albrecht and Alexandra Danilova as Myrtha and it served as a base for Anton Dolin to follow it with a 1840 production for Ballet Theatre (now ABT).
A Rhineland village.
Hilarion, a gamekeeper, enters. He is in love with Giselle, a beautiful peasant girl who lives with her mother Berthe. As he is about to knock on their door he hears someone approach. He hides behind Giselle’s cottage as Albrecht, the Duke of Silesia, and his squire Wilfred arrive. Wilfred is begging his master to return with him, but Albrecht walks towards Giselle’s home. With the intention of wooing her he has been passing himself as Loys, a villager. Albrecht hands his cape and sword to Wilfred who hides them inside the opposite cottage and leaves. Albrecht – who now looks like a peasant – knocks on Giselle’s door and teasingly hides.
Giselle comes out dancing joyfully. She realises no one is there but Albrecht continues to tease, blowing her kisses. He finally comes out of hiding and Giselle pretends she is not happy to see him. She tries to leave but Albrecht declares his love and promises to be faithful. In order to test him Giselle plays “he loves me, he loves me not”. She realises with sadness that her last daisy petal indicates Albrecht doesn’t love her. Albrecht patches up the daisy and Giselle is consoled. As they dance, Hilarion arrives and tries to separate them; he is scolded by Giselle.
Villagers arrive to celebrate. As they dance Giselle is crowned Queen of the Vintage. Berthe arrives and fusses over Giselle. Through ballet mime she tells her daughter and the villagers the legend of the Wilis which sets the tone for two different versions:
- Giselle suffers from a weak heart. Berthe worries about the dancing and reminds her that her heart could fail. To impress her daughter she explains that if she dies she will become a Wili, a creature that is doomed to dance forever.
- Berthe does not approve of Giselle’s interest in Loys. She reminds her daughter that the Wilis are ghosts of jilted brides and that to avenge themselves they condemn to death any man who crosses their path.
While Giselle finally agrees to go inside and rest, Hilarion returns. He hides in Albrecht’s cottage as he hears horns announcing a hunting party in the distance. Wilfred arrives escorting The Prince of Courland and his daughter Bathilde. Berthe offers them hospitality and as Giselle serves wine she kneels at Bathilde’s feet, admiring her dress. Bathilde is taken with Giselle who now dances her famous variation (in some versions, this is danced after the nobles leave for the hunt). Bathilde offers a necklace to Giselle and enters to rest in the cottage while the men depart to hunt.
Hilarion has discovered a royal sword in Albrecht’s cottage. Giselle and Albrecht have reappeared to dance with the villagers and are about to embrace when Hilarion separates them with the weapon. Hilarion unmasks Albrecht but Giselle does not believe him. As Hilarion blows the hunting horn the prince and his daughter reappear and greet Albrecht. He kisses Bathilde’s hand and Giselle realises the extent of his deceit. Her heart is broken; she goes mad and lost in reverie she re-enacts earlier moments with Loys. She takes Albrecht’s sword and drags it around the stage. Finally:
- she runs towards Berthe and falls to the ground lifeless. Her heart has failed. Albrecht runs towards Giselle asking for forgiveness.
- she seizes the sword and stabs herself. She runs to Berthe and to Albrecht, dying in his hands. Albrecht retrieves the sword and runs towards Hilarion, threatening him. Albrecht is forced to leave while Berthe and Hilarion mourn over Giselle’s lifeless body.
Giselle’s grave in the forest
It is close to midnight, the time when the Wilis appear. Hilarion has been keeping vigil on Giselle’s grave. He now starts to see apparitions and leaves frightened.
Myrtha the Queen of the Wilis appears, looking like a bride in a long white dress and veil. She crosses the stage, vanishing and reappearing. She dances and with her wand (Myrtle branches) she summons her Wilis. They appear from both sides of the stage, hands crossed over, heads covered with white veils. They do as Myrtha instructs, dancing and finally stopping at the grave. Myrtha commands Giselle to rise and to take flight as a new Wili. The Wilis leave and we see a remorseful Albrecht approach. As he lays flowers (lilies) on Giselle’s grave her ghost appears and they begin to dance together. She soon flees, with Albrecht in pursuit.
Hilarion has been captured by the Wilis and is forced by Myrtha into an endless dance. He is about to collapse when the Wilis seize him and throw him on a lake where he drowns. They have now found Albrecht but when Myrtha commands him to dance Giselle leads him to the cross from her grave where Myrtha is powerless. She stands before him in defiance of the Wilis.
Myrtha tells Giselle to dance. She obeys and Albrecht, now tempted, leaves his spot by the cross trying to reach for Giselle. He dances with her a Pas de Deux. Exhausted he pleads forgiveness. To no avail, he must dance till he dies. Giselle does her best to sustain him and Albrecht is at the point of collapse when dawn finally breaks. The Wilis are now powerless. Giselle embraces Albrecht and bids him farewell. Her spirit is now free from the Wilis as her love has transcended death. She disappears; Albrecht is left alone.
Other Notable Versions
Mats Ek’s for The Cullberg Ballet (1982). In Ek’s version, the second act is set in an asylum, the Wilis are mental patients and Myrtha is their nurse. Giselle is a “village idiot” and Albrecht goes mad as well. Expect the usual Ek theatrics in this most unromantic conception of the ballet.
Mary Skeaping’s for The Royal Swedish Ballet (1953). Skeaping had learnt the ballet while dancing with Anna Pavlova’s company . She researched and restored much of the ballet and retrieved its original score from the Paris Opera archives. Skeaping also staged this version of Giselle for the English National Ballet (reviewed here).
Arthur Mitchell’s Creole Giselle for Dance Theatre of Harlem (1984). This production is set in the Louisiana Bayou around 1840 when “social status among free blacks was measured by how far removed one’s family was from slavery”.
David Dawson’s for the Dresden Semperoper Ballett (2008). This is a contemporary reworking of the classical libretto exploring the themes of betrayal in Act I and justice/mercy in Act II. The production, with designs by Arne Walther and costumes by Principal dancer Yumiko Takeshima, has a minimalist flavour.
- Gelsey Kirkland – Act I variation [link]
- Olga Spessivtseva in her signature Act I variation (diagonal of turns – instead of a manège – see also Rojo and Bouder videos below) [link]
- Alicia Alonso & Azari Plisetsky – Act II Pas de Deux [link]
- Alicia Markova & Anton Dolin, a short clip with testimonials and performance footage [link]
- Carla Fracci and Vladimir Vasiliev – Act II Pas de Deux [link]
- Natalia Makarova – Mad Scene with Mikhail Baryshnikov (Albrecht) and Frank Smith (Hilarion) in David Blair’s production [link]
- Mikhail Baryshnikov – Albrecht’s Act II variation (diagonals of brisés instead of entrechats) [link]
- Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg – Act II Pas de Deux [link]
- Alina Cojocaru – Mad Scene [link]
- Olesya Novikova and POB’s Mathieu Ganio – Act II Pas de Deux [link]
- Svetlana Lunkina and Nikolai Tsiskaridze in Vladimir Vasiliev‘s Giselle [link]
- Natalia Osipova’s and ABT’s David Hallberg‘s in Vladimir Vasiliev’s Giselle [link]
- Lorena Feijóo dances the rarely seen Act I “flute variation” (also seen in Mary Skeaping’s version) [link]
- Maria Alexandrova as Myrtha [link]
- Marianela Nuñez as Myrtha [link]
- Tamara Rojo dances the Spessivtseva variation [link]
- Ashley Bouder dances the Spessivtseva variation [link]
Adolphe Adam was born in Paris in 1803. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1821 to study organ and harmonium. He soon started to show his talent for composing and by 1830 he had done 28 scores for the theatre, including Danilowa, his first full work, an opera presented at the Opéra Comique. According to Adam’s memoirs, the full score for Giselle was completed in just three weeks. He recalls “I composed the music in high spirits. I was in a hurry and that always fires my imagination. I was very friendly with Perrot and Carlotta, and the piece evolved, as it were, in my drawing-room.”
At that time it was usual for ballets to use a pastiche of pre-existing melodies in lieu of a commissioned score, so Adam’s Giselle stood out for its high quality and as one of the first ballets to use character leitmotifs. These can be recognised from the start: Albrecht’s and Giselle’s themes mesh into a love theme as Giselle plucks the daisy in Act I. Hilarion also has his own short leitmotif and the Wilis’s theme, although more prominent in Act II, can be heard as early as Act I when Berthe tells their legend.
The ballet also includes several dance sections: quadrilles, waltzes, nocturnes, tarantellas. Gautier’s libretto originally called for different Wilis from around the world: a Hungarian, a gypsy and even a bayadère, so Adam composed music for each dancer in their own “national style”. The libretto was revised and altered, though some of these passages were kept (eg. those for Wili Moyna, an odalisque who dances an oriental variation, Wili Zulma, a bayadère; French Wilis who dance a minuet and German Wilis, a waltz).
When the ballet was taken to Russia, several interpolations and variations by other composers were added. For example, the music for the peasant Pas de Deux was composed by Frédéric Burgmüller. It is also thought that Minkus composed additional music for the 1884 revival, including some of Giselle’s Act II variation and probably Giselle’s Act I variation.
An essential iPod / Spotify list for Giselle would include the following tracks:
3. Entrée d’Albrecht
4. Entrée de Giselle
7. Retour de la vendange
17. Entrée et danse de Myrthe
18. Entrée des Wilis
25. Grand Pas d’action: Grand adage / Variation de Giselle / Variation d’Albert / Coda
26. Scène finale
For the full listing of dances and scenes, see Wikipedia
Choreography: Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot (Revised version by Marius Petipa)
Libretto: Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Théophile Gautier and Jean Coralli
Music: Adolphe Adam
Original Designs: Pierre Ciceri
Original Costumes: Paul Lorimer
Original Cast: Carlotta Grisi as Giselle, Lucien Petipa as Albrecht, Adèle Dumilâtre as Myrtha.
Premiere: 28 June 1841, Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique, Paris
Sources and Further Information
- A Quintessential Romantic Ballet by Marian Smith. Royal Ballet’s Giselle Programme Notes 2009.
- Adam and his score by Joseph Horovitz. Royal Ballet’s Programme Notes 2009.
- Performance History by Clement Crisp. Royal Ballet’s Programme Notes 2009.
- Ballet Met’s Notes by Gerard Charles. February 2001 [link]
- Wikipedia entry for Giselle [link]
- Wikipedia entry for Adolphe Adam [link]
- The Borzoi Book of Ballets by Grace Robert. Alfred Knopf Publishers, New York 1946. ISBN-10: 1419122010 ISBN-13: 978-1419122019
- Balanchine Festival of Ballets by George Balanchine and Francis Mason. W. H. Allen & Co Ltd, London 1978. ISBN-10: 0491020376 ISBN-13: 978-0491020374
- The Musical World of Giselle by Richard Jones. Ballet.co Magazine, March 2005 [link]
- Mary Skeaping’s Giselle by Jane Pritchard. Ballet.co Magazine, March 2005 [link]
- Dresden Semperoper Ballett’s Giselle. Review by by Carolina de Pedro Pascual. Ballet.co Magazine, December 2010 [link]
- Giselle, choreography by Mats Ek. Paris Opera Ballet Review by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, July 2004 [link]
- Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle by Marian Smith. Princeton Studies in Opera, Princeton University Press. ISBN-10: 0691146497 ISBN-13: 978-0691146492
- The Ballet called Giselle by Cyril W. Beaumont. Dance Books, New edition edition, 2008. ISBN-10: 1852730048 ISBN-13: 978-1852730048
- Works & Progress at the Guggenheim presents “Giselle revisited”. Preview of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of Giselle, with Peter Boal and Doug Fullington [link]