Enjoy Giselle ballet performances in Bolshoi Theatre, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre and Kremlin Palace
In an 1841 news article announcing the first performance of Giselle, Théophile Gautier recorded his part in the creation of the ballet. He had read Heinrich Heine’s description of the Wilis in De l’Allemagne and thought these evil spirits would make a “pretty ballet”. He planned their story for Act II and settled upon a verse by Victor Hugo called “Fantômes” to provide the inspiration for Act I. This verse is about a beautiful 15-year-old Spanish girl who loves to dance. She becomes too warm at a ball and dies of a chill in the cool morning.
Heine’s prose passage in De l’Allemagne tells of supernatural young women called the Wilis. They have died before their wedding day and rise from their graves in the middle of the night to dance. Any young man who crosses their path is forced to dance to his death. In another book, the Wilis are said to be jilted young women who have died and become vampires. This is assumed to be the reason that they hate men.
Gautier thought Heine’s Wilis and Hugo’s fifteen-year-old Spanish girl would make a good ballet story. His first idea was to present an empty ballroom glittering with crystal and candlelight. The Wilis would cast a spell over the floor. Giselle and other dancers would enter and whirl through the room, unable to resist the spell to keep them dancing. Giselle would try to keep her lover from partnering other girls. The Queen of the Wilis would enter, lay her cold hand on Giselle’s heart and the girl would drop dead.
Gautier was not satisfied with this story. It was basically a succession of dances with one moment of drama at its end. He had no experience writing ballet scenarios so he called upon Vernoy de St. Georges, a man who had written many ballet librettos. St. Georges liked Gautier’s basic idea of the frail young girl and the Wilis. He wrote the story of Giselle as it is known today in three days, and sent it to Léon Pillet, the director of the Paris Opéra. Pillet needed a good story to introduce Grisi to the Paris public. He found that story in Giselle. Grisi liked it as much as Pillet did, so Giselle was put into production at once.
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.
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.
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.
Giselle was a great artistic and commercial success. Le Constitutionnel praised Act II for its “poetic effects”. Moniteur des théâtres wrote that Grisi “runs [and] flies across the stage like a gazelle in love”. One critic made a detailed analysis of the music in La France Musicale. He thought the Act I waltz “ravishing” and noted that the scene of Berthe’s narrative was filled with “quite new” harmonic modulations. He praised other moments in Act I (especially the mad scene), and was in raptures with the music of Act II, singling out the entrance of the Wilis and the viola solo played through Giselle’s last moments. He thought the flute and harp music accompanying Giselle as she disappeared into her grave at ballet’s end “full of tragic beauty.”
Coralli was praised for the Act I peasant pas de deux and for the “elegance” of Act II. Coralli followed a suggestion made by Gautier and picked the most beautiful girls in the company to play the peasants and the Wilis. One observer thought the selection process cruel: the almost-beautiful girls were turned away without a second thought.
Grisi and Petipa were great successes as the tragic lovers. Gautier praised their performance in Act II, writing that the two dancers made the act “a real poem, a choreographic elegy full of charm and tenderness … More than one eye that thought it was seeing only [dance] was surprised to find its vision obscured by a tear—something that does not often happen in a ballet … Grisi danced with a perfection … that places her in the ranks between Elssler and Taglioni … Her miming surpassed every expectation … She is nature and artlessness personified.”
Adam thought Petipa “charming” as both dancer and actor, and that he had “rehabilitated” male dancing with his performance. Of Dumilâtre he wrote, “… in spite of her coldness, [Dumilâtre] deserved the success she achieved by the correctness and the ‘mythological’ quality of her poses: perhaps this word may seem a little pretentious, but I can think of no other to express such cold and noble dancing as would suit Minerva in a merry mood, and in this respect [Dumilâtre] seems to bear a strong resemblance to that goddess.”
Giselle made 6500 francs between June and September 1841. This was twice the amount for the same time period in 1839. Grisi’s salary was increased to make her the top earner among the dancers at the Opéra. Souvenirs were sold, pictures of Grisi as Giselle were printed, and sheet music arrangements were made for social dancing. The sculptor Emile Thomas made a statuette of Giselle in her Act II costume. A silk cloth was manufactured called façonné Giselle, and Madame Lainné, a milliner, sold an artificial flower called ‘Giselle’. The ballet was parodied at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in October 1841.