What we now consider the greatest ballet of the Romantic era, Giselle, premiered at the Paris Opera on June 28, 1841. Still deemed to provide one of the richest dramatic challenges for both a ballerina and her partner, this ballet encapsulates all the themes characteristic of Romantic theater and Gothic literature: inevitably tragic love stories, noblemen in disguise, innocent and betrayed heroines, a mad scene, vibrant local color giving way to moonlit forest glades, all of this topped by a heavy dose of the supernatural. Listen to the music with your eyes. Adolphe Adam’s score, resplendent with topical leitmotifs, sprucely antedates Wagner’s “discovery” of the form.
ACT I [50 minutes]
Giselle is the loveliest girl in a fairy-tale-like village lost somewhere in the Rhineland of the Romantic imagination. She will have two passions: her love for the dance and her love for Loys, a mysterious but handsome newcomer to the village. She will have two problems: her mother (who fears her daughter will wear out her heart by dancing too much and become a Wili, a restless dancing ghost) and Hilarion (a lowly games-keeper, Giselle’s very jealous self-anointed fiancé).
As this is a melodrama, when the curtain rises we must first encounter the anti-hero as he sets the plot in motion: Hilarion, toting either a bouquet or a brace of coneys (depends on the production), places his offering longingly at the entrance to the hut where Giselle and her mother live. But you can sense something is wrong. He’d make an okay son-in-law, but is he sexy? (Depends on the production, but usually the role is interpreted as a thankless and self-defeating exercise).
But the next guy — swooping down into Giselle’s bucolic valley replete with cape, sword, and shadowed by an intrusive but shrewd valet (called Wilfried in the program)– is indeed sexy and most confident of his charms. This elegant mystery man calling himself “Loys” sees no reason to deposit mere offerings before the girl’s door and then back away. He jauntily knocks on the door in triple rhythm, as Adolphe Adam’s music does its lovely variation on “Hickory Dickory Dock.”
As if just awakened, our beautiful heroine bursts out of her house, all abounce. By nature, she walks on air.
Her attraction to the elegant stranger who calls himself “Loys” is a no-brainer. But her modesty forms a kind of wall around her that this newcomer yearns to breach. Giselle, not by nature untrusting, nevertheless relies on a daisy to tell her if her new suitor’s aims are true. “He loves me, he loves me not.” Here is one case where French trumps English: the music in 3/4 time includes a winding and regretful phrase which ends in a question just where a French woman of the 19th century would touch the last petal. This superstitious gesture involves a soft chant of more than just two options: 1) he loves me 2) a little 3) a lot 4) passionately 5) unto madness 6) …not at all. “Unto madness” will perversely prove to define these characters’ lives.
Alas – even if her self-assured suitor tries to increase the odds by cheating – the flower proves prophetic at this moment: he loves her maybe a little but really not at all. The music’s “daisy theme” will haunt them both, from its fractured return during the mad scene to its odd reappearance (as led astray by a cello) for their duet in Act II…
Hilarion returns and bothers the couple. Village life goes on.
The usual harvest festival becomes especially exciting once an aristocratic hunting party arrives. The villagers decide to entertain them with dances. Giselle, prevented by her fretful mother from dancing, presents two of her friends who outdo each other in a technically demanding duet. One of the grand ladies, Bathilde, takes such a particular liking to Giselle that she asks her father, the Duke of Courland, if she might offer her own necklace to the young girl.
Overjoyed by such a gift, Giselle’s happiness grows when she is anointed « Harvest Queen. » Her mother cannot stop her from dancing with and for her friends.
Alas, meanwhile, the suspicious Hilarion actively seeks proof that Loys is not the regular guy he claims to be. He finds it in Loys’s hut: a sword, which by law and custom is forbidden to simple folk.
In fact, Loys is really Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise and who has been long affianced to Bathilde. Unmasked by Hilarion in front of everybody, Albrecht tries to make light of the situation. Giselle, realizing that she is about to lose the only man she has ever loved, begins to lose her mind. Desperately fighting against the darkness that fills her heart – and whether she has a heart attack or stabs herself with Albrecht’s sword depends on the production and the ballerina – she races about, haunted by old melodies, especially that of the “daisies.” Her invisible flowers now clearly shout his “I love you not.” Desperate for any love that is true, real and selfless, she hurls herself into her mother’s arms. And drops dead.
ACT II [50 minutes]
The moonlit second act takes place in a forest glade located somewhere between the village cemetery and a lake. We are in the realm of the Wilis, a ghostly tribe of beautiful young women who had died in despair just before their wedding day. Jilted by their fiancés, these girls are forever condemned to rise out of their graves each night under the spell of their queen, Myrtha.
Myrtha dances three solos in a row upon her entrance, all of them exercises in control and release…woe betide one without bounce, a steely softness, and natural gravitas. Thus the wilis embark each night to exact ritual revenge on all men – all of them, not just those who cheat and lie — by luring them one a time into their midst and then forcing each to dance until, exhausted, he dies.
The woebegone Hilarion, bringing flowers to Giselle’s grave, becomes their first victim during this night. But Giselle, summoned from her tomb to be initiated as a Wili, does all in her power to save their next target: Albrecht. He has finally understood that the daisy lied to them both: he loves her, passionately.
Giselle’s pleas that Myrtha let him go fall on deaf ears. So our heroine tries to lull Albrecht and protect him by moving only gently and slowly. But they both get carried away be her now truly fatal passion for dancing. To everyone’s surprise, Albrecht is still breathing when the sound of bells signaling dawn shatters the power of the Wilis. Giselle’s superhuman ability to love and to forgive has broken the spell. She may/must now return to her grave to rest in eternal peace. If Albrecht does not die, he realizes that this means he is condemned to something worse: life.
He will remain alone with his memories. Unto madness, perhaps. We will never know how his story ends.