Archives de Tag: Albrecht

Giselle: a plot summary

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.


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 ACT I [50 minutes]

Martha Murawiewa. Paris,1863

Martha Murawiewa. Paris,1863

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.

Pavlova. London, 1925

Pavlova. London, 1925

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.

Bolshoï. US tour 1959

Bolshoï. US tour 1959



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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.

Paris Opera Ballet 1990's

Paris Opera Ballet 1990’s

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.

Platel Belarbi Arbo 1990

Platel, Belarbi, Arbo. Paris Opera Ballet 1990’s

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.


At the Palais Garnier in Paris from May 28th through June 5th, 2016.
Choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. Music by Adolphe Adam.
Story by Théophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, after Heinrich Heine, 1841.

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Un argument pour Giselle

Ce que nous considérons aujourd’hui comme le plus grand des ballets de l’ère romantique, eut sa première à l’Opéra de Paris le 28 juin 1841. Aujourd’hui encore réputé pour offrir un des plus riches défis dramatiques à la ballerine comme à son partenaire, ce ballet encapsule tous les thèmes caractéristiques du théâtre romantique et de la littérature gothique : amours inévitablement tragiques, gentilshommes déguisés, héroïnes innocentes et trahies, une scène de la folie, vibrante couleur locale laissant la place à une clairière au clair de lune, tout cela surmonté d’une grosse dose de surnaturel. Écoutez la musique avec vos yeux. La partition d’Adolphe Adam, resplendissante de leitmotivs topiques, anticipe gracieusement la « découverte » par Wagner du procédé.


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 Acte I [50 minutes]

Martha Murawiewa. Paris,1863

Martha Murawiewa. Paris,1863

Giselle est la plus jolie fille d’un village de conte de fées perdu quelque part dans une région du Rhin rêvée par les Romantiques. Elle a deux passions : son amour pour la danse et son amour pour Loys, un nouveau venu au village, aussi mystérieux qu’il est beau. Elle a deux problèmes : sa mère (qui craint que sa fille n’épuise son cœur à trop danser et qu’elle ne devienne une Willi, un insatiable fantôme dansant) et Hilarion (un humble garde-chasse, le fiancé autoproclamé et jaloux de Giselle).

Comme il s’agit d’un mélodrame, lorsque le rideau se lève, il nous faut rencontrer d’abord cet anti-héros tandis qu’il met l’action sur les rails : Hilarion, trimbalant soit un bouquet soit une paire de lièvres (cela dépend de la production), dépose soupirant son offrande à l’entrée de la chaumière où vivent Giselle et sa mère. Mais on peut d’ores-et-déjà sentir que quelque chose ne va pas. Ce gars-là ferait un beau-fils acceptable, mais est-il sexy ? (Là aussi cela dépend de la production, mais généralement le rôle est interprété comme une tâche ingrate et punitive).

Car voilà que le garçon suivant, qui fait irruption dans la vallée bucolique de Giselle, tout de cape, d’épée, et de valet aussi intrusif que malin – appelé Wilfried dans le programme – est, lui, on ne peut plus sexy et conscient de son charme. Cet élégant homme mystère, se faisant appeler « Loys », ne voit aucune raison valable de déposer une offrande devant la maison de la jeune fille pour ensuite s’éclipser. Il toque avec désinvolture à la porte sur un compte de trois, alors que la musique d’Adam offre une jolie variation « sur l’air du tra dé ri dé ra, et tra la la la. ».

Comme si elle venait de s’éveiller, notre jolie héroïne jaillit de sa maison, toute sautillante. Par nature, elle marche sur les airs.

Pavlova. London, 1925

Pavlova. London, 1925

Son attirance pour l’élégant étranger qui répond au nom de « Loys » ne fait aucun doute. Mais sa pudeur dresse une sorte de muraille autour d’elle que ce nouveau venu ne demande qu’à battre en brèche. Giselle, bien que n’étant pas de nature méfiante, s’en remet néanmoins à une marguerite pour lui dire si les intentions de son nouveau soupirant sont sincères. « Il m’aime, il ne m’aime pas ». Voilà un cas ou le français l’emporte sur l’anglais : la musique en 3/4 déroule un thème plein de regrets qui évoque la question qu’une femme du XIXe siècle poserait en effeuillant le dernier pétale. Ce geste superstitieux convoque une douce mélopée qui compte plus que deux options : 1) Il m’aime 2) un peu 3)beaucoup 4) passionnément 5) à la folie 6) pas du tout ; «À la folie » se révélera cruellement à propos pour définir le destin des personnages du drame.

Hélas – même si son soupirant, très sûr de lui, essaye de conjurer le sort en trichant – la fleur semble prophétiser la réalité du moment : il aime un peu mais pas vraiment à la folie. La musique du « thème de la marguerite » les hantera tous deux, de son retour fracturé pendant la scène de la folie à sa réapparition bizarre (dévoyée par le violoncelle) pendant le duo de l’acte II.

Hilarion revient et dérange le couple. La vie du village suit son cours.

L’habituelle fête des vendanges devient particulièrement passionnante lorsqu’arrive une aristocratique partie de chasse. Les villageois décident de les divertir par des danses. Giselle, empêchée de danser par sa soucieuse de mère, présente deux de ses amis qui se surpassent l’un l’autre durant un duo techniquement exigeant. L’une des nobles dames, Bathilde s’entiche à ce point de Giselle qu’elle demande à son père, le duc de Courlande, si elle peut offrir son collier à la jeune fille.

Parée de ce collier princier, Giselle est élue reine des vendanges. Elle obtient enfin la permission de danser devant ses camarades.

Pendant ce temps, le suspicieux Hilarion recherche la preuve que Loys n’est pas le monsieur tout le monde qu’il prétend être. Il la trouve dans la cabanes de Loys : une épée, qui par loi et coutume est interdite aux gens du commun.

En fait, Loys n’est autre qu’Albrecht, un gentilhomme déguisé en paysan depuis longtemps fiancé à Bathilde.

Démasqué par Hilarion devant toute l’assemblée, Albrecht tente de mettre au clair la situation. Giselle, réalisant qu’elle est sur le point de perdre le seul homme qu’elle ait jamais aimé, commence à perdre la tête. Se battant désespérément contre les ténèbres qui remplissent son cœur – qu’elle meure d’une crise cardiaque ou qu’elle se poignarde avec l’épée d’Albrecht dépend de la production ou de la ballerine – elle déambule, hantée par de vieilles mélodies, tout particulièrement celle de la « marguerite » ; ces fleurs invisibles qui maintenant lui crient tout fort « pas du tout ». Avide de trouver de l’amour qui soit vrai, réel et dévoué, elle se précipite dans les bras de sa mère. Elle tombe morte à ses pieds.

Bolshoï. US tour 1959

Bolshoï. US tour 1959



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ACTE II [50 minutes]

Le second acte, éclairé au clair de lune, prend place dans une clairière située entre le cimetière du village et un lac. Nous sommes au royaume des Willis, une fantomatique tribu de jeunes femmes mortes avant leur mariage. Abandonnées par leur fiancé, ces jeunes filles sont à jamais condamnées à sortir chaque nuit de leur tombe sous le charme maléfique de leur reine, Myrtha.

Paris Opera Ballet 1990's

Paris Opera Ballet 1990’s

Myrtha danse trois solos à la suite, chacun d’entre eux étant un exercice de contrôlé-relâché. Malheur à celles qui sont dépourvue de ballon, d’une douceur implacable et d’une gravité naturelle. Commence alors le rituel de vengeance des Willis envers les hommes – tous les hommes et pas seulement ceux qui ont trompé ou menti – les attirant dans leur rangs puis les forçant à danser jusqu’à ce qu’épuisés, ils meurent.

Hilarion éploré, apportant des fleurs sur la tombe de Giselle, sera leur première victime. Mais Giselle, convoquée hors de sa tombe pour être initiée en tant que Wili, fait tout en son pouvoir pour sauver leur prochaine victime : Albrecht. Il a finalement compris que la marguerite leur avait menti à tous les deux : il aime Giselle passionnément.

Platel Belarbi Arbo 1990

Platel Belarbi Arbo 1990’s

Sa supplique à Myrtha de le laisser aller a rencontré une sourde oreille. Giselle essaye donc d’épargner Albrecht en bougeant le plus doucement et le plus lentement possible ; cependant ils sont comme emportés par sa désormais fatale passion pour la danse. À la surprise générale, Albrecht respire encore lorsque le son des cloches signalant l’aurore met fin au pouvoir de Willis.

La surhumaine capacité d’amour et de pardon de Giselle a rompu le maléfice. Elle va pouvoir – elle doit maintenant – retourner à sa tombe pour y jouir de la paix éternelle. Si Albrecht ne meurt pas, il réalise que cela signifie qu’il est condamné à quelque chose de pire : la vie.

Il restera seul avec ses souvenirs, jusqu’à la folie peut-être. Nous ne saurons jamais comment l’histoire se termine.

Au palais Garnier du 28 mai au 5 juin 2016
Chorégraphie Jean Coralli et Jules Perrot. Musique, Adolphe Adam.
Argument de Théophile Gautier et Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint Georges, d’après Heinrich Heine.

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Giselle in Toulouse: Let me count the ways

Théâtre du Capitole - salle. Crédit : Patrice Nin

Théâtre du Capitole – salle. Crédit : Patrice Nin

Toulouse, Ballet du Capitole. December 24th

On Christmas Eve, I’d rather partake in seduction, madness, death, zombie rituals, and on-stage wine making than submit to (year after year) forced good cheer, snowflakes, and “let us now bless the fruitcake.”

God I love France. For the holidays, ballet companies can still afford to program intelligent and saccharine-free entertainment for tired grown-ups. This December 24th not a Nutcrack was stirring and no kid played a mouse. In Paris, to chase the winter blues away you could have treated your family to either the glistening and tragic Nureyev-Petipa “La Bayadere” at the Opéra Bastille or Pina Bausch’s eviscerating version of “Le Sacre du printemps” at the Palais Garnier. On that same day in Toulouse, you would have been swept away into a new production of “Giselle,” as most thoughtfully revisited by its director, Kader Belarbi.

Because of the glories and pitfalls of ballet being part of an “oral tradition,” there has not been and will never be “the” authentic version of any ballet made before the ability to record live performances became ubiquitous. And even now, technique will continue to develop (the idea scares me a bit), coaches will always encourage their heirs to go that one step further, adding clutter when clutter is what needs to be cleared away.

Even if I’ve been a Giselle-ophile since as long as I can remember, I’ve always been perplexed by all the different versions proffered as “the one” by different companies and quite often wished that at least one of them would smooth out some of the anachronisms in the drama (which are frequently rendered less palpable by the sheer force of the dancing personas of a specific G or Albrecht…which can explain why it endures despite its oddities).

So here are some reasons to be thankful for this new Giselle in Toulouse:

#1: the set and costumes. Why shouldn’t we get rid of Alexander Benois’s nostalgist tsarist-inspired happy-serf aesthetic? And rightfully rediscover something closer to the original French point of view? This ballet was born in France just the “bourgeois monarch” Louis-Philippe ordered that Notre-Dame finally be landmarked and medieval revival style – as well as class conflict — was all the rage. Giselle is a poor peasant, right? What’s with the little cozy cabin and the perfectly wrought bench? Make the hut look like a hut, the bench a log, the peasants wear bright colors with white knickers [yeah, too clean and very 19th century, but let’s get not too historically correct. The overall feeling is). Have Wilfred hide Albrecht’s noble sword in a yet-to-be-filled wine barrel. More the pity then that, in Act 2, Giselle’s grave doesn’t look freshly dug but lists to the side as only very old markers do. If that is the case, does the obsessed Hilarion really need to be shown where it is?

Giselle, acte 1. crédit David Herrero

Giselle, act 1. crédit David Herrero

#2: peasants vs. nobles. Put peasants in soft slippers, make their dances squat and flexed-footy and sharpen class difference by making the noblewomen actually dance, and angularly – in an almost Art Deco way — on pointe with their cavaliers (much more fun to watch than reluctantly trotting borzois, as it turns out). The specificity of movement on each side not only clarifies the gulf separating these two worlds. Now it calls attention to how Giselle’s (Maria Gutierrez) gentle and airborne way of moving – the steps we are used to – determines that this unusual girl is caught in-between. Her steps partake of neither camp. Next, finally cast a Berthe who looks the right age to be the mother of a teenager, who acts as grounded and dignified as peasants really are, and entrust the role to Laura Fernandez’s strong spine and pithy mime. Adding two drunk male villagers might at first seem off-putting when you first open the program, but the high-flying travails of Minoru Kaneko and Nicolas Rombaut – partly to odd bits of Adam’s original score – made more sense than the usual frou-frou. That frou-frou also known as…

#3: ze Peasant pas de deux. Interpolated music, interpolated dance, why? Of course I know it was there from the start, a gift to a starlet in 1841, but the intrusion persists and never really ever satisfies. Good lord, I’ve seen duos, trios, sextets, octets, all set to this music, all of which stop dead the arc of a drama that is supposed to be building steam. Here Belarbi re-channeled the steps via a real quartet of villagers, clearly introduced by Giselle at an appropriate moment. Kayo Nakazato and Tiphaine Prévost, Matthew Astley and Philippe Solano exchanging, echoing, responding to each other’s steps, made it all fresh and rescued the flow. When Astley and Solano quit lightly competing and sank gracefully to the knee in perfectly relaxed synchronicity I thought, “this fits this imaginary world.” Usually this section seems to interrupt the narrative, like a hula dance devised for tourists. Here it almost felt too short.

#4: Hilarion. Demian Vargas may be the best one I’ve ever seen. Rough and rustic enough but only to the point that we understand that Giselle might find his passion a bit too intense. But she could never deem him creepy, as Gutierrez emphasized in her soft sad mime, knowing how her words would pain him. Little added bits of business – he goes to fetch water for Berthe as a hopeful future son-in-law would do; doesn’t have to go as far as breaking into a house in order to find the sword – made you root for him. For once not forced to do “lousy dance” when hunted in Act 2 (normally emphasized so that Albrecht looks better). Because of the set-up in Act 1, the fact that he danced to his death using the same kind of classic vocabulary that had isolated Giselle…made sense. This misunderstood Hilarion, too, had been trapped by birth in a village that could not fathom an equally honorable soul. Just one detail from many: in the mad scene, when this Giselle falls splat down in our direction, her hands with violently splayed fingers seem to be reaching out to us. During his dance of death, Belarbi makes Hilarion repeat this image. It’s subtle, you might not catch it, but it embodies how Hilarion has been haunted by Giselle’s fate, and is now submitting to his own.

Hilario : Demian Vargas (here with Juliette Thélin and Davit Galstyan. Crédit David Hererro

Hilarion : Demian Vargas (here with Julie Charlet and Davit Galstyan). Crédit David Hererro

# 5: Bathilde has a real dancing part! Juliette Thélin brings authority and style to whatever she does, and here she was given something do to other than look as peevish and elegant as a borzoi. I’ve always hated the way that this character talks about love to a naïve girl, seems so generous and warm, sits around and then just stalks off in a huff when things get messy. If you want to be correct about peasants, then be correct about the aristocratic concept of duty. Real aristocrats don’t ever lose their manners. Bathilde matures before our eyes and dances towards Giselle’s sorrow (to another inhabitual snippet of Adam’s score). The “mad scene” thus expands into a tragedy not only observed but felt by all. Albrecht’s behavior doesn’t just destroy Giselle’s life, but clearly Bathilde’s one chance at happiness too. Therefore here is the one case where I wish that Belarbi been much more daring and given us the original ending where Albrecht’s melancholy now-wife arrives and leads him back to the home where their hearts aren’t.

Bathilde (Juliette Thélin) et Giselle (Maria Gutierrez). Crédit David Hererro

Bathilde (Juliette Thélin) and Giselle (Maria Gutierrez). Crédit David Hererro

I would need about 6,000 words to convey every morsel of the sensitive directions in which Belarbi has taken this beloved warhorse. Instead, just find an excuse to fly to Toulouse to see the rest of what I have only started to talk about and judge for yourself. This theatrically coherent and beautifully danced Giselle will sate you more than any Nutcracker ever will.

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