Choreographer: Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot
Music: Adolphe Adam
Costumes: Anna Anni (2001); Peter Farmer (2004)
Set Design: Gianni Quaranta (2001); Peter Farmer (2004)
Lighting: Jules Duro
World Premiere: Paris Opera Ballet, June 28, 1841
PBT Performance Dates: February 2001, March 2004, October 2013
Synopsis (from PBT playbill, 2004)
The setting is a vineyard village bordering the Rhine. In the early morning Count Albrecht, accompanied by his squire Wilfred, arrives. Albrecht is disguised as a peasant, who the villagers have come to know as Loys. The Count has been captivated by the beautiful peasant maiden, Giselle, whose love of life and free spirit expressed by her passion to dance are in great contrast to the burdens of his life as a nobleman. Albrecht and Wilfred retreat inside a cottage that neighbors Giselle's home.
Hilarion, the village huntsman and a gamekeeper to the court, who is also in love with Giselle, returns from his early morning chores and pauses before her cottage. The villagers soon join him. They all concur that Giselle shall be named the new Harvest Queen and depart to the vineyards, where they will harvest the last of the grapes before the Harvest Festival.
Count Albrecht emerges from his cottage disguised as Loys. Wilfred inspects his disguise and expresses some concern. Nonetheless, Albrecht dismisses him, and Wilfred leaves reluctantly. Albrecht, in his guise as Loys, excuses himself from the grape-pickers so that he may be alone with Giselle. He swears eternal love to her, and she performs the traditional daisy test, "he loves me, he loves me not." Hilarion interrupts protesting that he, not Loys, truly loves Giselle. A quarrel ensues, and Albrecht instinctively reaches for his sword, which as a nobleman he is accustomed to wearing. This behavior strikes Hilarion as odd.
The villagers return, and Giselle invites them to join in dance to celebrate the harvest. Berthe, Giselle's mother, warns Giselle that her life may be endangered if she over exerts herself dancing because she has a frail heart. Berthe is struck by a hallucination of her daughter in death. She sees her as a Wili, a restless spirit who has died with her love unrequited.
A horn sounds in the distance, and Wilfred rushes in to warn Albrecht that the Prince of Courtland and his hunting party are about to arrive. Hilarion witnesses this exchange and is puzzled by the deference the squire pays to Loys. As Wilfred and Albrecht hastily depart, Hilarion breaks into Albrecht’s cottage.
The royal hunting party arrives led by the Prince of Courtland and his daughter, Bathilde. Giselle and Berthe offer them rest and refreshments. Bathilde is taken by Giselle’s charm and beauty, and Giselle is equally intrigued by her nobleness. The two confide in one another and learn that they are both engaged to be married. Bathilde presents Giselle with a gold medallion for her dowry. After the royal party leaves to return to the hunt, Hilarion emerges from Albrecht's cottage with a hunting horn and sword, evidence that Loys is actually a nobleman.
The villagers return and proclaim Giselle the Queen of the Harvest Festival. The harvest crown is passed from the present queen to Giselle. To express her gratitude to her fellow villagers, Giselle dances for them, demonstrating the passion she has for dancing. Hilarion interrupts the festivities to denounce Loys as an impostor. Albrecht tries to deny these charges and threatens Hilarion with the sword. Hilarion blows the hunting horn, a signal for the Prince to return, and the hunting party reenters. Loys’ true identity as Count Albrecht is exposed when Bathilde reveals that he is her fiance. The devastation of learning of Albrecht's duplicity is too much for Giselle's frail constitution. Losing her will to live, Giselle’s mind becomes unhinged, and she dies of a broken heart.
The scene is set in a clearing in the forest where Giselle's grave lies. The scene opens with Hilarion beside Giselle’s grave mourning her death. After being frightened by unnatural occurrences, Hilarion flees into the forest.
Out of the mist the Wilis are summoned by their Queen, Myrta, to attend the ceremonies that will initiate Giselle into their sisterhood. The Wilis are all maidens whose fiances have failed to marry them before their death. With their love unrequited, their spirits are forever destined to roam the forest from midnight to dawn, vengefully trapping any male who enters their domain and forcing him to dance to his death. Hilarion reenters the clearing and is trapped by the vengeful Wilis. He is commanded to dance to his death.
Albrecht, who arrives to leave flowers on Giselle's grave, is also trapped and commanded to dance unto his death. However Giselle comes to his rescue. Propelled by her own passion to dance, she dances with him until the clock strikes four, at which hour the Wilis lose their power. Albrecht is saved from death. Giselle returns to her grave and places the medallion, which Bathilde gave her, in Albrecht's hand as a symbol of forgiveness and her desire for him to be happy once again.
Her power of true forgiveness and selfless efforts to protect Albrecht from death prevent Giselle from being initiated into the vengeful sisterhood of the Wilis, allowing her to rest in peace for eternity.
By Carol Meeder, former Director of Arts Education
In every art form there are certain milestones that mark a significant point in its development. These milestones may indicate the beginning or end of an era or the pinnacle of a particular style period, a point that no other work has attained. In the art of ballet, Giselle marks that apex for the Romantic period. In his book, The Ballet Called Giselle, Cyril W. Beaumont, one of the most respected writers on ballet in the twentieth century, calls Giselle the “supreme achievement of the Romantic ballet.” At the threshold of this twenty-first century when the fusion of jazz and ballet marks the beginning of new directions for dance, it seems appropriate to recognize and appreciate what has gone before. Each milestone has brought us a step closer to the present, and lights the way to the future.
From the inception of ballet in the 1600s to the late 1700s, productions were truly “classical” in nature. The subjects were drawn from the Greek and Roman traditions and mythology. Themes were more heroic than emotional, and the adherence to the conventions of polite society was strict. As the social, economic, and political life of Europe began to change, and the peasantry became aware of the unfamiliar principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the arts also began reflecting these highly emotional qualities. The result was the Romantic idealogy that concerned itself with the village life of the common people and with mysterious sylvan glens bathed in glowing moonlight. Superstitions and fascinations with the supernatural that were so prevalent in peasant life also found their way into literature and art.
Théophile Gautier, a prominent romantic writer whose friends and contemporaries included writers E.T.A. Hoffmann and Victor Hugo; composers Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Fredric Chopin, and Franz Liszt; and artists Delacroix and Géricault, was intrigued by a Slavonic legend of the Wilis recorded in Heinrich Heine’s De l’Allemagne. The Wilis were affianced maidens who, having died before their wedding day, could not rest peacefully in their graves because they had been unable to satisfy their passion for dancing while alive. Therefore at midnight they would rise from their graves and lure young men that they met along the roadway to dance with them until the men fell dead.
Another interpretation, which Beaumont quotes from Meyer, offers a further reason for the vengeance of the Wilis by defining a Wili as “a species of vampire consisting of the spirits of betrothed girls who have died as a result of their being jilted by faithless lovers.” Gautier carried this theme idea to the well-known librettist Jules Henri Vernoy, Marquis de Saint-Georges. The scenario was written quickly and shown to Jules Perrot, the choreographer, whose “wife,” with whom Gautier was smitten, was Carlotta Grisi, a new ballerina with the Paris Opera. Perrot in turn presented it to composer Adolphe Adam and convinced him to postpone his current project to compose for this exciting new ballet. Giselle was born. Although Jules Perrot was said to have choreographed all the solos for Carlotta Grisi, the first Giselle, his name was not listed. Perhaps this occurred because Jean Coralli was the official choreographer of the Paris Opera.
Besides incorporating the Romantic elements of village life, human emotions, national color, and the fantastic or supernatural, Giselle has the unique and ideal theme of “the dance” where the story is driven by this maiden’s passion for dance. Angela Kane, in her Giselle Production Notes from the English National Ballet, articulately expresses the complex and sometimes contradictory themes of the storyline:
“Dualism, duplicity, and destiny: these were the themes explored by many Romantic artists and significantly, Giselle extends all three. The peasant girl, Giselle, is first human then spirit. Her death is brought about by the deception of her lover Albrecht. However, once Giselle’s passion for dancing is established at the beginning of the ballet, her fate seems pre-ordained. In Giselle, dancing is both subject and content. And in Act II, it becomes the ballet’s pivotal theme. It is through dancing that Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, summons her sister spirits. Giselle’s initiation as a Wili begins with a whirling series of temps levé sur place. Later, where she tries to protect Albrecht from the Wilis' unrelenting attack, it is Myrtha’s insistence that Giselle dances, which forces the lovers apart.”
Just as the art of ballet traveled from Italy to France to Russia to America so did Giselle make its way from Paris to London, St. Petersburg, and later, New York. The technical and dramatic diversity and difficulty of its choreography has made it the most challenging role in Romantic ballet. The list of revered ballerinas who have successfully and admirably interpreted the role of Giselle contains many names that have become legends in the world of ballet. Carlotta Grisi, the first Giselle who danced the role for the first ten years of the production at the Paris Opera, Anna Pavlova, Olga Spessivtseva, and Alicia Markova are just a few. The ballet was first performed in the United States in 1846. It was presented both in New York and Boston. The Boston performance presented the first American production, giving us the first American Giselle, Mary Ann Lee, who had studied in Paris with Jean Coralli.
In more recent years, PBT’s Ballet Mistress Marianna Tcherkassky was declared by dance critic Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times to be “one of the greatest Giselles that America has ever produced.” This distinction was conferred on Marianna for her performance of Giselle with American Ballet Theatre in New York. When a guest ballerina had taken ill, Marianna, a soloist with ABT, was invited by Mikhail Baryshnikov to dance the role opposite his Albrecht. This was the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship with the role of Giselle. She danced not only with technical prowess but also with sensitive artistry, both of which prompted Kisselgoff to bestow her well-deserved accolade. It was just after that stunning performance that Marianna received her promotion to Principal Dancer, a position she beautifully executed for many years prior to coming to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre with her husband, Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr, to assume the duties of Ballet Mistress.