Giselle, Ballet by Adolphe Adam
Giselle, a tale of the power of love, is quite simply one of the most important works in the history of ballet. Making a welcome return to the Vienna State Opera this season, Giselle is credited with setting the visual template for the Romantic era.
When Giselle learns that her beloved Albrecht is engaged to marry another, she descends into madness. She dies and is captured by the Wilis, the vengeful spirits of brides-to-be whose only desire is to destroy the men who abandoned them. Enchanted by their ghostly beauty, Albrecht falls into the Wilis’ trap, a dance to the death. Only if Giselle can find it in herself to forgive him will she save Albrecht and her own soul.
The idea for Giselle came from the French writer, Théophile Gautier. He was enthralled by the German poet Heinrich Heine’s account of the Slavic legend of the Wilis. But he had no experience of writing a libretto. That task fell to Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges.
The Paris Opéra was enthusiastic about staging the work; they were more than happy to find another vehicle for their new starlet, Carlotta Grisi. The only problem was that the ballet had to be created in less than two months. Despite this pressure, its composer, Adolphe Adam, and its choreographers, Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, delivered Giselle on time.
Premiered on 28 June 1841 at the Salle Le Peletier, home in that period to the Paris Opéra, the ballet was an immediate success. It continued to be performed, albeit with some periods outside the Paris Opéra’s repertory, in its original conception until 1868. Perrot, who by then had moved to the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, passed his responsibilities for Giselle on to Marius Petipa who revived the work four times between 1884 and 1903.
Petipa’s ideas, after Perrot and Coralli’s choreography, provide the basis for most productions of Giselle today. It is one of ballet’s most enduring works; it’s easy to see why. The prima ballerina is given a role to die for, an opportunity to express every possible emotion. And then there are the Wilis, perhaps the genre’s scariest depiction of the supernatural, guaranteed to thrill and chill in equal measure.