When German poet Heinrich Heine wrote De l’Allemagne (“On Germany”), which was published in Paris in 1835, he couldn’t have imagined that two short paragraphs from his book, where he so evocatively and vividly described an ancient Slavic legend of the Wilis, betrothed young maidens who perished before their wedding day, would inspire “Giselle”—one of the most enduring and popular ballets ever made—the quintessential Romantic-era classic.
Dressed in their wedding gowns, with wreaths of flowers on their heads and sparkling rings on their fingers, the Wilis dance in the moonlight like elves. Their faces, though white as snow, have the beauty of youth. They laugh with a deceptive joy, they lure you so seductively, their expressions offer such sweet prospects, that these lifeless bacchantes are irresistible.
Heinrich Heine, De l’Allemagne
Théophile Gautier recalled in his book, Histoire de l’art dramatique, that after reading Heine’s description of the mystical young creatures “who cannot rest peacefully in their graves” for “in their stilled hearts and lifeless feet, there remains a love for dancing which they were unable to satisfy during their lifetimes,” he immediately proclaimed: “What a pretty ballet this would make!” Consumed by his idea of bringing the story of the Wilis to the stage, Gautier didn’t procrastinate. He wrote the libretto, collaborating with an experienced playwright, Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges; Adolphe Adam was completed the score, with its tuneful leitmotifs and pretty waltzes, in less than three months; and Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot conjured the choreography.
The Paris Opéra was “Giselle’s” birthplace. An unprecedented triumph, the original production was an elaborate spectacle, with scores of secondary characters and detailed pantomime scenes. A young rising star—the Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi—was the original Giselle, performing on opening night on June 28th, 1841 with Lucien Petipa as Albrecht, a nobleman, responsible for Giselle’s death.
It was the great Marius Petipa, Lucien’s brother, who secured the ballet’s survival and immortality when he revised the original Coralli-Perrot choreography for the Imperial Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg in 1884. Petipa’s version became an enduring staple at the Mariinsky and eventually made it back to Paris in 1910, securing the ballet’s popularity with French audiences.
Paris Opera Ballet’s current production of “Giselle” is worthy of its prestigious birthright. Created for the company by Patrice Bart and Eugène Polyakov, it premiered in 1991 to mark the 150th anniversary of the ballet’s premiere. In 1998, the modernist décor by Loïc Le Groumellec was replaced with a replica of Alexandre Benois’ picturesque designs of 1924, lending the production its authentic Romantic look.
I saw this production of “Giselle” when Paris Opera Ballet visited the Kennedy Center Opera House in 2012. The opening night was unforgettable. Equally sensitive and powerful in her expressivity, and light and evocative in her dancing, Aurelie Dupont was astonishing in the title role; her Albrecht was the dashing Mathieu Ganio. Everything about that “Giselle” was perfect: the production itself, with its mystical fairy-tale-like atmosphere, as well as the inspired performance of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers.
During the Friday matinee performance, there was another revelation—a heart-stopping portrayal of “Giselle” by Dorothée Gilbert. Her dramatic portrayal of the “mad scene” was astonishing: I was deeply moved by the power of the raw emotions I witnessed onstage.
I was eager to revisit this production again—now on film—when the Paris Opera Ballet streamed a recording of the performance online that featured Gilbert and Ganio in the leading roles. I wanted to relive the past performance and to experience this ballet afresh.
Watching POB’s “Giselle” on screen brought into sharp focus many intricacies and subtleties of this spectacular production. The rustic charm of the first Act’s setting was captured on film in great detail. In the foreground, the stage decorations rendered an idyllic village surrounded by an autumnal forest—a pastoral cottage and a hut with thatched roof stood before a constellation of austere stone castles, perched on distant mountain peaks. Act II takes place in an eerie, foggy graveyard, enveloped by a wall of tangled trees; the ruins of a church suggest a God-forsaken place.
The production was as gripping and dramatically poignant as I remember. The meticulous and elaborate storytelling with abundance of clear pantomime is the winning formula of this “Giselle,” offering an immersion into the Romantic era.
Dorothée Gilbert’s Giselle was a delightful and vibrant young woman—a sweetheart of her village and a loving daughter. The felicity and vitality of her dancing is irresistible; she radiates a special sense of warmth and joy that draws us deeper into her story. And this Giselle was clearly under the spell of the gallantries and charms of her new admirer—a handsome young lad named Loys, a supposed-villager, who promised her love and marriage. Shy and timid at first, flirtatious and carefree later on, she was hopelessly smitten with him as their courtship progressed.
Mathieu Ganio as a duplicitous Count Albrecht (in the guise of Loys) was dazzling and charismatic. Yet, in Act I, this Albrecht was never relaxed, always on alert. His dubious nature was obvious: he was constantly checking his surroundings, as though afraid of being caught. The eagerness and simplicity of his manner would suddenly tighten and he would adjust himself, looking uneasy and anxious. It was a great dramatic touch, indicating that Albrecht was wooing Giselle under false pretenses.
The close-ups made it possible to marvel at the smallest details of characterization, as when Albrecht’s face instantly darkened when he realized that Giselle had a necklace belonging to his fiancée, Bathilde; or when the wide-eyed Giselle was admiring Bathilde and her opulent attire as though it represented all the beauty and glamour in the world. And when the camera would zoom in on Giselle’s mother, Berthe, it was impossible not to notice a permanently worried look clouding her face.
When Albrecht’s true identity was revealed, Gilbert’s Giselle went into sudden shock and then slowly expired. Her “mad scene” was different from the one I remembered from years ago—more subdued and introspective but poignant and heart-wrenching nevertheless. A long close-up of her face revealed her vacant and hollow gaze. Her lovely features turned solemn and pale and she looked as though she had already departed; it seemed in her broken mind the surroundings were no longer real.
In the supernatural realm of the Wilis, in Act II, Ganio’s Albrecht was a man transformed by devastating sorrow and guilt. In his lachrymose walk toward Giselle’s grave, white lilies in hand, he was as somber and dignified as if he had stepped out of a formal Renaissance painting.
With her dark hair tightly framing her beautiful face, Gilbert as a mystical spirit, was transformed. Gone were vibrancy and liveliness; a luminous apparition, dressed in a white tulle gown, she exuded a serene power. In their final encounter, Ganio and Gilbert looked so absorbed with each other it might have been Albrecht and Giselle dancing at their wedding, swirling in each other’s arms, together at last, even if only for a brief moment, declaring their love again in their first and final farewell waltz.