Giselle, Ballet by Adolphe Adams
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Giselle. The quintessential Romantic ballet, it provided the template for much that followed it. Praised by its contemporaries for its lightness and fluidity, Giselle had a clear influence on the young Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who studied it assiduously while creating his own seminal masterpiece, Swan Lake.
Originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and set to music by Adolphe Adam, Giselle was commissioned to provide a vehicle for the gifted Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi, a dancer who was to become the darling of the Paris Opéra. Written to a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, following a suggestion by Théophile Gautier, both the score and the choreography for Giselle were created at breakneck speed and the ballet was premiered at the Salle le Peletier in Paris on 28 June 1841.
Giselle is a peasant girl who has the misfortune to fall in love with a nobleman. Already engaged, Albrecht, a duke, maintains the pretence of being a villager called Loys. When his deception is revealed, Giselle dies, heartbroken. Her fate is to become one of the Wilis, the vengeful forest spirits of women, dead before they are married, who find themselves driven to make men dance themselves to own deaths. Only Giselle’s forgiveness can save her soul and Albrecht’s life.
No less a figure than George Balanchine, who single-handedly transformed American ballet in the twentieth century, described Giselle as the Hamlet of the ballet world. It’s easy to see why. It has wonderful characterisation including, in addition to Giselle and Albrecht, the figures of Hilarion, who obtains no reward for exposing Albrecht’s betrayal, and Myrtha, the sinister Queen of the Wilis. The effect of replacing the swift denouement of the plot in the first act with the timeless feel of the ballet blanc that follows it is both magical and unsettling. The Wilis, eerily clad in white, provide a ghostly spectacle that enchants both Albrecht and Hilarion, while the almost chirpy qualities of Adam’s music early on in the ballet are exchanged for something more ethereal, and ultimately more captivating, as the story moves to its sad conclusion.
Giselle consolidated the revolutionary steps taken by Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide nine years earlier. Dancing en pointe, now inseparable from what we associate with the classical tradition, became indispensable to telling a tale rather than merely providing a way of showing off a ballerina’s technical ability. Now this masterpiece of the Romantic era is set for the stage of the Teatro Costanzi, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Giselle is a work of beauty and grace whose uninterrupted place in the repertory has defied the whims of time and fashionable opinion.