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This article is about the ballet. For other uses, see Giselle (disambiguation).
Giselle C Grisi as Giselle 1842.JPG
Carlotta Grisi as the first Act I Giselle (1842)
Choreographer Jean Coralli
Jules Perrot
Music Adolphe Adam
Libretto Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges
Théophile Gautier
Based on Heinrich Heine's De l'Allemagne
Victor Hugo's "Fantômes" from Les Orientales
Premiere Sunday 28 June 1841 – Paris, France
Original ballet company Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique
Characters Giselle, a peasant girl
Albrecht, Duke of Silesia
Hilarion, a gamekeeper
Berthe, Giselle's mother
Bathilde, a princess
Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
Setting Rhineland during the Middle Ages
Created for Carlotta Grisi
Genre Fantasy
Type Romantic ballet

Giselle, or The Wilis (French: Giselle, ou Les Wilis) is a romantic ballet in two acts with a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier. They took their inspiration from a prose passage about the Wilis in Elementargeister by Heinrich Heine, and from a poem about a girl who dies after an all-night ball called "Fantômes" in Les Orientales by Victor Hugo. Adolphe Adam composed the music; Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot composed the choreography. The role of Giselle was intended for the Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi as her debut piece for the Paris public. She was the first to dance the role.

The ballet is about a peasant girl named Giselle who dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover is betrothed to another. The Wilis, a group of supernatural women who dance men to death, summon Giselle from her grave. They target her lover for death, but Giselle's love frees him from their grasp.

Giselle was first performed by the Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris, France, on Sunday 28 June 1841. The opening night was a triumph with both critics and the public. The ballet became hugely popular. It was staged across Europe, Russia, and the United States.

The traditional choreography that has been passed down to the present day derives primarily from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. Petipa's choreography from the Imperial Ballet's production was notated in the Stepanov method of choreographic notation in 1903 as Petipa himself took the great Anna Pavlova through rehearsals. Many years later, the Imperial Ballet's régisseur Nicholas Sergeyev would use this notation to stage Giselle throughout Europe, most notably for the Ballets Russes in 1910, the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1924 and, perhaps most importantly, for the Vic-Wells Ballet (precursor of the Royal Ballet in London) in 1934. It is from this 1934 staging that nearly all subsequent productions of Giselle are now based. Today the Imperial Ballet's choreographic notation of Giselle, along with notations for many ballets of the traditional classical repertory, are part of the Sergeyev Collection and preserved in the Harvard University Library theatre collection.


Performance of Lully's opera Alceste ("ornamented with ballet entrées") in the Marble Court at Versailles on 4 July 1674.

The French Revolution (1789–1799) created a French middle class of people who did not like the tastes and values of the aristocracy. These tastes and values had influenced French art and literature since the reign of Louis XIV.[1] The power of the aristocracy had ended with the Revolution. Thousands of aristocrats had died on the guillotine, or in massacres. Many died in prisons, or had fled France for safety in other lands.

After the Revolution, French ballet directors and designers turned their attention to stories based on the Greek and Roman mythologies. The aristocracy liked these stories. The directors and designers however turned instead to the stories the middle class liked. These stories were based on real life, real places, past times, everyday people, and the supernatural.[2]

Two ballets with such stories caused great excitement in Paris in the 1830s. In November 1831, Meyerbeer's opera Robert le diable had its first performance. It featured a short ballet called The Ballet of the Nuns. In this little ballet, dead nuns rise from their graves to dance in the moonlight. The public loved this ballet.[2]

Marie Taglioni as La Slyphide, 1832

In March 1832, the ballet La Sylphide was performed.[2] This ballet is about a beautiful sylph (fairy). She loves James, a young Scotsman. Tragedy occurs. James accidentally kills the sylph.[3]

This ballet brought Marie Taglioni before the French public. She was the first to dance en pointe for artistic reasons rather than spectacle. She was also the first to wear the white, bell-shaped, calf-length ballet skirt now considered an essential feature of the romantic ballet.[4]

Poet and critic Théophile Gautier attended the first performance of La Sylphide. His ideas for Giselle would show touches of La Sylphide ten years later. It would be set in a real place and in the past, for example, and would be about everyday people and supernatural women.[5]

Story development[edit]

Portrait sketch of the upper half of a man with pale skin and short hair. He is wearing a dress shirt, waistcoat and jacket.
Vernoy de St. Georges, date unknown

In an 1841 news article announcing the first performance of Giselle, Théophile Gautier recorded his part in the creation of the ballet. He had read Heinrich Heine's description of the Wilis in De l'Allemagne, and thought these evil spirits would make a "pretty ballet".[6] He planned their story for Act 2, and settled upon a verse by Victor Hugo called "Fantômes" to provide the inspiration for Act 1. This verse is about a beautiful 15 year old Spanish girl who loves to dance. She becomes too warm at a ball, and dies of a chill in the cool morning.[7]

Heine's prose passage in De l'Allemagne tells of supernatural young women called the Wilis. They have died before their wedding day and rise from their graves in the middle of the night to dance. Any young man who crosses their path is forced to dance to his death.[8] In another book, the Wilis are said to be jilted young women who have died and become vampires. This is assumed to be the reason that they hate men.[7]

Gautier thought Heine's Wilis and Hugo's fifteen year old Spanish girl would make a good ballet story.[9] His first idea was to present an empty ballroom glittering with crystal and candlelight. The Wilis would cast a spell over the floor. Giselle and other dancers would enter and whirl through the room, unable to resist the spell to keep them dancing. Giselle would try to keep her lover from partnering other girls. The Queen of the Wilis would enter, lay her cold hand on Giselle's heart, and the girl would drop dead.[10]

Ciceri's design for the cloister scene in The Ballet of the Nuns at the Paris Opera, 1832

Gautier was not satisfied with this story. It was basically a succession of dances with one moment of drama at its end.[10] He had no experience writing ballet stories so he called upon Vernoy de St. Georges, a man who had written many stories for the ballet. St. Georges liked Gautier's basic idea of the frail young girl and the Wilis. He wrote the story of Giselle as it is known today in three days,[11][12] and sent it to Léon Pillet, the director of the Paris Opéra.[10]

Pillet wanted to present a beautiful young Italian dancer named Carlotta Grisi to the public. He considered La Sylphide, but Adèle Dumilâtre reminded him that the role had been promised to her. A ballet in preparation, La Rosière de Gand, was suggested, but Grisi objected. The role was too long and the story was not suitable for dance.[13] Pillet needed a good story, and he found it in Giselle. Grisi liked the story as much as Pillet did, so Giselle was put into development at once.[14]


Gautier, 1838

French poet and ballet critic Théophile Gautier was inspired by Victor Hugo's poem "Fantômes" in Les Orientales to create a ballet scenario. Hugo's poem told of a young girl who dies in the cool morning air after dancing all night in a ballroom.

Gautier also took inspiration from a prose passage in Heinrich Heine's 1837 essay on folklore "Elementargeister" ("Elemental Spirits") describing supernatural young women called the Wilis. These women dance men to death.

Gautier was not satisfied with his scenario and took it to professional librettist Jules-Henri Verney de Saint-Georges for advice. Verney de Saint-Georges liked the concept, and, in three days, had completed a libretto.

This libretto was sent to M. Pillet, the director of the Paris Opéra. Pillet needed a good story to introduce Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi to the Paris public. Pillet and Grisi both liked the libretto, and the ballet was put into production at once.


Portrait sketch of a short-bearded man with cropped hair. He is wearing glasses and formal wear.
Adolphe Adam about 1835

The musical score was an anomaly amongst the majority of ballet scorings up to this point in that it was an almost entirely original composition, instead of a potpourri of classical melodies, as was a practice at that time when mounting dance productions.

Adolphe Adam was a popular writer of ballet and opera music in early 19th-century France.[15] He wrote with great speed. He completed Giselle in about two months.[16] The music was written in the smooth, song-like style of the day called cantilena. This style is well known to music lovers from Bellini's opera Norma and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.[17]

The composer also successfully integrated leitmotivs, most evident in Giselle's famous "mad scene". These thematic elements were musical devices used to strategically recall happier times, against the unfolding drama of Giselle's breaking heart and her subsequent death.

Adam used several leitmotifs in the ballet. A leitmotif is a short musical phrase that is associated with a certain character, event, or idea. Adam's leitmotifs are heard several times throughout the ballet.[18] A leitmotif is associated with Giselle, and another with Albrecht. Hilarion's motif marks his every entrance. It suggests the Fate theme in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

A few pieces by Friedrich Burgmüller were inserted into the score by an unknown hand.

Another leitmotif is associated with the "he loves me, he loves me not" flower test in Act 1. This leitmotif is heard again in the mad scene, and in Act 2 when Giselle offers flowers to Albrecht. The Wilis have their own motif. It is heard in the overture, in Act 1 when Berthe tells the story of the Wilis, and in the mad scene. It is heard again in Act 2 when the Wilis make their first entrance. The hunting horn motif marks sudden surprises. This motif is heard when Albrecht is exposed as a nobleman.[19]

The music was completely original with Adam. A critic noted however that Adam had borrowed eight bars from a romance by a Miss Puget and three bars from the huntsman's chorus in Carl Maria von Weber's opera Euryanthé. In addition, two pieces by Friedrich Burgmüller were inserted into the ballet. One was a waltz called "Souvenir de Ratisbonne". The other music was a group of dances performed by Giselle's friends. It is unknown who put these pieces into the ballet.[20]

One dance historian writes:

By no stretch of the imagination can the score of Giselle be called great music, but it cannot be denied that it is admirably suited to its purpose. It is danceable, and it has colour and mood attuned to the various dramatic situations ... As we listen today to these haunting melodies composed over a century ago, we quickly become conscious of their intense nostalgic quality, not unlike the opening of a Victorian Keepsake, between whose pages lies an admirably preserved Valentine—in all the glory of its intricate paper lace and symbolic floral designs—which whispers of a leisured age now forever past. For a brief space the air seems faintly perfumed with parma violet and gardenia. The music of Giselle still exerts its magic.

— Cyril W. Beaumont, from A Ballet Called Giselle (1996), p. 58


Jean Coralli about 1830

Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot choreographed the first Giselle. Perrot and Carlotta Grisi were lovers. Perrot designed all of Grisi's dances and all of her pantomime.[21] Everyone in the Paris dance world knew that Perrot had designed Grisi's dances, and Coralli said so, but Perrot was given no official credit in the printed materials such as posters and programs.[22] This was most likely done to prevent Perrot from collecting royalties on the ballet.[23] Perrot liked bold touches and planned several rapid aerial swoops on wires in Act 2 for Giselle. Grisi was afraid of these swoops. A stage hand was brought in to test the swoops. He crashed face-first into the scenery. The swoops were dropped.[24]

Cyril Beaumont writes that Giselle is made up of two elements — dance and mime. Act 1 features short mimed scenes, he points out, and episodes of dancing which are fused with mime. In Act 2, mime has become fused entirely with dance. He indicates that the choreographic vocabulary is composed of a small number of simple steps:

  • Movements: developpe, grand rond de jambe
  • Poses: arabesque, attitude
  • Gliding steps: chasse, glissade, pas de basque, pas de bouree
  • Hopping steps: ballone, temps leve
  • Turning steps: pirouette, petit tour, tour en l'air
  • Leaping steps: (vertical) ballotte, entrechat, sisonne, rond de jambe en l'air saute, (horizontal) cabriole, jete, grande jete, soubresaut

Beaumont speculates that the simple steps were deliberately planned to allow the "utmost expressiveness."[25]

Grisi and Perrot dance "The Opera Polka" on a sheet music cover, 1840

Parts of Giselle have been cut or changed since the ballet's first night. Giselle's Act 1 pantomime scene in which she tells Albrecht of her strange dream is cut. The peasant pas de deux in Act 1 is cut back a bit. The Prince of Courland and his daughter Bathilde used to make their entrance on horseback, but today they walk on. In the original production, the Prince and Bathilde were present at Giselle's death, but now they leave the scene before she dies. The machines used to make Giselle fly and to make her disappear are no longer used. A trapdoor is sometimes employed to make Giselle rise from her grave and then to make her sink into it at the end of Act 2.[26]

At the end of Act 2, Bathilde formerly entered with the courtiers to search for Albrecht. He took a few unsteady steps toward them and collapsed into their arms. This moment was an artistic parallel to the Act 1 finale when the peasants gathered about the dead Giselle. Now, Bathilde and the courtiers are cut, and Albrecht slowly leaves the stage alone.[27]

Ethnic elements[edit]

Sketch on the title page of a music sheet called Valse Favorite de Giselle. The sketch is of a pair of dancers, the male partially dipping the female in his left arm.
Grisi and Petipa on "Valse favorite de Giselle", a sheet music cover

Ethnic music, dance, and costume were a large part of romantic ballet. At the time Giselle was written, people thought of Germany when they heard a waltz because the waltz was of German origin. Giselle makes her first entrance to the music of a waltz, and the audience would have known at once that the ballet was set in Germany. Adam wrote three waltzes for Giselle: two for Giselle and one for the Wilis. Adam wrote that the "Giselle Waltz" in Act 1 has "all the German color indicated by the locality." People agreed. One critic wrote: "A lovely waltz ... in the Germanic spirit of the subject".[28]

At first, Gautier thought that some of the dancers in the Act 2 waltz for the Wilis should dress in ethnic costume and dance ethnic steps. Adam put bits of French, Spanish, German, and Indian-sounding music in the waltz for this purpose. Gautier's "ethnic" idea was dropped as the ballet developed however, and it has not been picked up by modern producers. Today, Act 2 is a ballet blanc — a "white" ballet in which all the ballerinas and the corps de ballet are dressed in full, white, bell-shaped skirts and the dances have a geometric design.[28]

Sets and costumes[edit]

Sketch, with notes, of a male wearing red and white, Renaissance-style clothes, with tights and a black feathered hat.
Albrecht by Paul Lormier

The historical period for Giselle is not indicated in the story. Paul Lormier, the chief costume designer at the Paris Opéra, probably consulted Gautier on this matter. It is also possible that Pillet had the ballet's budget in mind and decided to use the many Renaissance-style costumes in the Opéra's wardrobe for Giselle. These costumes were said to have been those from Rossini's William Tell (1829) and Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini (1838). Lormier certainly designed the costumes for the principal characters. His costumes were in use at the Opéra until the ballet was dropped from the repertory in 1853.

Giselle was revived in 1863 with new costumes by Lormier's assistant, Alfred Albert. Albert's costumes are closer to those of modern productions than those of Lormier, and were in use at the opera until 1868. The ballet was revived again in 1924 with scenery and costumes by Alexandre Benois. He wanted to revive the costumes of the original production but dropped the idea, believing the critics would charge him with a lack of imaginative creativity.[29]


Pierre Luc Charles Ciceri was the chief set designer at the Paris Opéra from 1815 to 1847. He designed the sets for the first production of Giselle. Gautier was not specific about the ballet's locale, but placed it in "some mysterious corner of Germany ... on the other side of the Rhine". This would have been the eastern side.

Giselle was two months in rehearsal. This was a very long rehearsal time for the period. Even so, Ciceri did not have enough time to design sets for both acts and focused on the second act. The sets for the first act were actually those designed for the 1838 ballet, La Fille du Danube by Adam. An illustration from Les Beautés de l'Opera of 1845 shows Giselle's cottage with a roof of straw on the left, and Albrecht's cottage on the right. The two cottages are framed by the branches of two large trees on either sides of the stage. Between the two cottages, in the distance, appears a castle and slopes covered with vineyards. Although this scene was not designed for Giselle, it has remained the model for most modern productions.[30] Ciceri's set was in use until the ballet was dropped from the repertoire in 1853. At that time, Gautier noticed that the sets were falling apart: "Giselle's cottage has barely three or four straws on its roof."[31]

Act 2 from Les Beautés de l'Opéra

The Act 2 illustration from Les Beautés shows a dark wood with a pool of water in the distance. The branches of aged trees create an arch overhead. Beneath these branches on the left is a marble cross with 'Giselle' written on it. From one of its arms hangs the crown of grape leaves Giselle wore as Queen of the Vintage. On the stage, thick weeds and wildflowers (200 bulrushes and 120 branches of flowers) were the undergrowth. The gas jets of the footlights and those overhead suspended in the flies were turned low to create a mood of mystery and terror.

A circular hole was cut into the backdrop and covered with a transparent material. A strong light behind this hole represented the moon. The light was occasionally manipulated to suggest the passage of clouds. Gautier and St. Georges wanted the pool to be made of large mirrors. Pillet rejected this idea because of its cost. In the 1868 revival however, the mirrors were acquired for this scene.[32]

Adam thought Ciceri's backdrop for Act 1 was "not so good ... it is all weak and pale" but he liked the set for Act 2: "[Ciceri's] second act is a delight, a dark humid forest filled with bulrushes and wild flowers, and ending with a sunrise, seen at first through the trees at the end of the piece, and very magical in its effect." The sunrise also delighted the critics.[33]

First performance[edit]

Boldlettered type of an announcement from the Academie Royale de Musique on 28 June 1841: La premiere representation de Giselle ou les Wilis, ballet-pantomime en 2 actes.
Original poster

The balletomanes of Paris became very excited as the opening night of Giselle approached. News reports kept their interest alive. Some reports said that Grisi had had an accident whilst other reports indicated that the conductor was ill with a tumour. Still others said that the stage hands feared for their safety.[34]

Hopes that the ballet would be ready in May were dashed. Opening night was postponed several times. Grisi was absent for a few days and her return was delayed to protect her health. Lighting, trapdoors, and scene changes needed further rehearsals. Cuts were made in Grisi's role to spare the dancer's health. Instead of returning to her tomb at the end of the ballet, it was decided Giselle would be placed on a bed of flowers and sink slowly into the earth. This touch preserved the romantic mood of the Act 2 finale.[35]

Ballet in the Salle Le Peletier in 1864

At last, on Monday 28 June 1841, the curtain rose on Giselle in the Salle Le Peletier.[36] Grisi played Giselle with Lucien Petipa as her lover Albrecht, M. Simon as the gamekeeper Hilarion, and Adèle Dumilâtre as Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis.[37] Typical of the theatrical practices of the time, Giselle was preceded by an excerpt from another production — in this case, the third act of Rossini's opera, Moise.

In spite of the chief machinist shouting orders to his crew that could be heard by the audience, Giselle was a great success. Grisi was a sensation. Ballet-goers regarded her as another Taglioni, the greatest ballerina of the period.[38]

Contemporary reviews and comments[edit]

Giselle was a great artistic and commercial success. Le Constitutionnel praised Act 2 for its "poetic effects".[33] Moniteur des théâtres wrote that Grisi "runs [and] flies across the stage like a gazelle in love".[39] One critic made a detailed analysis of the music in La France Musicale. He thought the Act 1 waltz "ravishing", and noted that the scene of Berthe's narrative was filled with "quite new" harmonic modulations. He praised other moments in Act 1 (especially the mad scene), and was in raptures with the music of Act 2, singling out the entrance of the Wilis and the viola solo played through Giselle's last moments. He thought the flute and harp music accompanying Giselle as she disappeared into her grave at ballet's end "full of tragic beauty."[40]

Coralli was praised for the Act 1 peasant pas de deux and for the "elegance" of Act 2. Coralli followed a suggestion made by Gautier and picked the most beautiful girls in the company to play the peasants and the Wilis. One observer thought the selection process cruel: the almost-beautiful girls were turned away without a second thought.[41]

Grisi and Petipa were great successes as the tragic lovers. Gautier praised their performance in Act 2, writing that the two dancers made the act "a real poem, a choreographic elegy full of charm and tenderness ... More than one eye that thought it was seeing only [dance] was surprised to find its vision obscured by a tear—something that does not often happen in a ballet ... Grisi danced with a perfection ... that places her in the ranks between Elssler and Taglioni ... Her miming surpassed every expectation ... She is nature and artlessness personified."[33]

Adam thought Petipa "charming" as both dancer and actor, and that he had "rehabilitated" male dancing with his performance. Of Dumilâtre he wrote, "... in spite of her coldness, [Dumilâtre] deserved the success she achieved by the correctness and the 'mythological' quality of her poses: perhaps this word may seem a little pretentious, but I can think of no other to express such cold and noble dancing as would suit Minerva in a merry mood, and in this respect [Dumilâtre] seems to bear a strong resemblamce to that goddess."[33]

Giselle made 6500 francs between June and September 1841. This was twice the amount for the same time period in 1839. Grisi's salary was increased to make her the top earner among the dancers at the Opéra. Souvenirs were sold. Pictures of Grisi as Giselle were printed, and sheet music arrangements were made for social dancing. The sculptor Emile Thomas made a statuette of Giselle in her Act 2 costume. A silk cloth was manufactured called façonné Giselle, and Madame Lainné, a milliner, sold an artificial flower called 'Giselle'. The ballet was parodied at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in October 1841.[42]

Early productions[edit]

Giselle was performed in Paris from its debut in 1841 to 1849. Grisi always danced the title role. In 1849, it was dropped from the repertoire. The ballet was revived in 1852 and 1853, but without Grisi. The work was dropped from the repertoire after 1853. It was revived in 1863 for a Russian ballerina, then dropped in 1868. It was revived almost 50 years later in 1924 for the debut of Olga Spessivtzeva. This production was revived in 1932 and 1938.[43]

Giselle was mounted by other ballet companies in Europe and America almost immediately after its first night. The British had their first taste of Giselle with a drama based on the ballet called Giselle, or The Phantom Night Dancers by William Moncrieff. He had seen the ballet in Paris the same year. The play was performed on 23 August 1841 at the Theatre Royal, Sadler's Wells.[43]

The actual ballet was first staged in London at Her Majesty's Theatre on 12 March 1842 with Grisi as Giselle and Perrot as Albrecht. The dances were credited to Perrot and one Deshayes. This production was revived many times, once in 1884 with a Mlle. Sismondi in the role of Albrecht. This production met with little enthusiasm. It was preceded by an operetta called Pocahontas.[44]

The ballet was staged by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1911 at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden with Tamara Karsavina and Nijinsky as Giselle and Albrecht. Anna Pavlova danced Giselle with her own company in 1913. Alicia Markova danced the role with the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, and Margot Fonteyn took the role in 1937 when Markova left the company. The English loved Giselle. In 1942, for example, three different companies were dancing the ballet in London.[45]

Giselle was first performed in Russia at the Bolshoi Theatre, St. Petersburg, on 18 December 1842. Gedeonov, the Director of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, sent his Ballet Master Titus to Paris to find a new ballet for ballerina Elena Andreyanova. Titus chose Giselle. The Ballet Master then staged the work completely from memory in St. Petersburg.[46] Perrot produced Giselle in St. Petersburg in 1851. He made many changes to the ballet in his years of service to the Imperial Ballet. In the 1880s, Ballet Master Marius Petipa made many changes to the Perrot production.[47]

Giselle was first staged in Italy at Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 17 January 1843. The music however was not Adam's, but that of one N. Bajetti. The dances were not the original either, but those of one A. Cortesi. It is possible that the ballet was first staged in the provincial theatres. This however is not known with certainty.[48]

In 1844, American ballerina Mary Ann Lee arrived in Paris to study with Coralli for a year. She returned to the United States in 1841 with the directions for Giselle and other ballets. Lee was the first to present Giselle in the United States. She did this on 1 January 1846 in Boston at the Howard Athenæum. George Washington Smith played Albrecht. Lee danced Giselle (again with Smith) on 13 April 1846 at the Park Theatre in New York City.[48][49]

In a departure from the traditional Giselle, Frederic Franklin restaged the ballet in 1988 as Creole Giselle for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. This adaptation set the ballet among the Creoles and African Americans in 1840s Louisiana.

Characters, plot, and resume of dances in the first performance[edit]


Drawing of a crowd of costumed dancers dancing around a stage beneath a large tree. Atop the stage is a lone female dancer.
Giselle is crowned Queen of the Vintage in an illustration from 1845
  • Duke Albrecht of Silesia, masquerading as a peasant named Loys
  • The Prince of Courland
  • Wilfride, Albrecht's squire
  • Hilarion, a gamekeeper
  • Old Peasant Man (usually cut in modern performances)
  • Bathilde, the Duke's fiancée
  • Giselle, a peasant girl
  • Berthe, Giselle's mother
  • Myrtha, Queen of the Wili
  • Zulmé, a Wili
  • Moyne, a Wili

Act I[edit]

upright=1.2Anna Pavlova as Giselle (before 1931)

The ballet opens on an autumnal day in the Rhineland during the Middle Ages. The grape harvest is underway. Duke Albrecht of Silesia, a young nobleman disguised as a peasant, is sowing his last wild oats before marriage to the princess Bathilde. He has fallen in love with the shy and beautiful village girl, Giselle. She knows nothing of his real life.

Hilarion, a gamekeeper, is also in love with Giselle. He tries to convince her that Albrecht cannot be trusted. Giselle ignores his warnings. Giselle's mother Berthe is very protective of her daughter, as Giselle has a weak heart that leaves her in delicate health. She discourages a relationship between Giselle and Albrecht.

A party of noblemen seeking refreshment following the rigors of the hunt arrives in the village. Albrecht quickly hurries away, knowing he will be recognized by Bathilde, who is in attendance. The villagers welcome the party, offer them refreshments, and perform several dances. Bathilde is charmed with Giselle's sweet and demure nature, not knowing of her fiance's relationship with her. Giselle is honored when the beautiful stranger offers her a necklace as a gift.

Hilarion interrupts the festivities. He has discovered Albrecht's sword, and presents it as proof that the peasant lad is not who he pretends to be. All are shocked by the revelation, but none more than Giselle, who becomes inconsolable when faced with her lover's deception. Knowing that they can never be together, Giselle flies into a mad fit of grief, causing her weak heart to give out at last. She dies in Albrecht's arms.

Act II[edit]

Nijinsky as Albrecht, 1910

A moonlit glade near Giselle's grave. Hilarion mourns at Giselle's headstone, but is frightened away by the arrival of the Wilis, the spirits of women jilted by their lovers at the altar. The Wilis, led by their merciless queen, Myrtha, haunt the forest at night to seek revenge on any man they encounter, forcing their victims to dance until they die of exhaustion.

Myrtha and the Wilis rouse Giselle's spirit from her grave and induct her into their clan, before disappearing into the forest. Albrecht arrives to lay flowers on Giselle's grave, and he weeps with guilt over her death. Giselle's spirit appears, and Albrecht begs her forgiveness. Giselle, her love undiminished, gently forgives him. She disappears to join the rest of the Wilis, and Albrecht desperately follows her.

Meanwhile, the Wilis have cornered Hilarion. They use their magic to force him to dance until he is nearly dead, and then drown him in a nearby lake. They then turn on Albrecht, sentencing him to death as well. He pleads to Myrtha for his life, but she coldly refuses. Giselle's pleas are also dismissed, and Albrecht is forced to dance until sunrise. However, the power of Giselle's love counters the Wilis' magic and spares his life. The other spirits return to their graves at daybreak, but Giselle has broken through the feelings of hatred and vengeance that control the Wilis, and is thus released from their powers. After bidding a tender farewell to Albrecht, Giselle returns to her grave to rest in peace.

Résumé of scenes and dances[edit]

Giselle, or The Wilis by Adolphe Adam act 1, Introduction

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Act I

  • no.1 Introduction
  • no.2 Scène première
  • no.3 Entrée d'Albrecht
  • no.4 Entrée de Giselle
  • no.5 Scène dansante
  • interpolation - Pas de deux pour Mlle Maria Gorshenkova (Ludwig Minkus; 1884; this piece was only included in Imperial-era productions)
  • no.6 Scène de Hilarion
  • no.7 Retour de la vendange
  • interpolation - Pas de cinq pour Mlle Carlotta Grisi (Cesare Pugni; 1850; only included for Grisi's performance)
  • no.8 Valse
  • no.9 Scène dansante
  • no.10 Le récit de Berthe
  • no.11 Scène : La chasse royale
  • no.12 Scène de Hilarion
  • no.13 Marche des vignerons
  • interpolation - Variation pour Mlle Elena Cornalba (aka Pas seul) (likely composed by Riccardo Drigo for Cornalba's debut as Giselle, December 1887)
  • interpolation - Pas de deux pour Mlle Nathalie Fitzjames (aka Peasant pas de deux)
Fashioned from Souvenirs de Ratisbonne by Johann Friedrich Franz Burgmüller, c. 1841 –
a. Entrée
b. Andante
c. Variation
d. Variation
interpolation - supplemental female variation (Mariinsky Theatre staging) (Riccardo Drigo. Variation for the ballerina Emma Bessone, 1886)
e. Variation
f. Coda
  • no.14 Galop général
  • no.15 Grande scène dramatique : La folie de Giselle

Act II

  • no.16 Introduction et scène
  • no.17 Entrée et danse de Myrthe
  • no.18 Entrée des Wilis
  • no.19 Grand pas des Wilis
  • no.20 Entrée de Giselle
  • no.21 Entrée d'Albrecht
  • no.22 L'apparition de Giselle
  • no.23 La mort de Hilarion
  • no.24 Scène des Wilis
  • no.25 Grand pas d'action
a. Grand adage
b. Variation de Giselle
c. Variation
interpolation - Variation pour Mlle. Adèle Grantzow (likely composed by Cesare Pugni; 1867)
d. Coda
  • no.26 Scène finale



Grisi as Giselle in Act II, 1841

The role of Giselle is one of the most famous Romantic ballet roles, and was created and first performed by Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi in June 1841. The character is a sweet, innocent, beautiful young peasant girl with a great love for dancing, but is forbidden to dance by her mother in fear of Giselle's health for the girl has a weak heart. Giselle finds herself caught up in a love rectangle, which takes a tragic turn after she discovers that her lover 'Loys' is really Duke Albrecht in disguise and is engaged to another woman. Devastated, she goes mad and dies of a broken heart. But even after her death, Giselle's love is undiminished. Summoned from her grave to join the Wilis, Giselle refuses to take revenge on Albrecht and instead, protects him, defending him until dawn and saving his life. Giselle's love has transcended death and she returns to her grave to rest in peace, never to again associate with the Wilis.


Albrecht is a young Duke and was first performed by French ballet dancer Lucien Petipa, brother of Marius Petipa, in June 1841. The character is usually portrayed as unhappy with his life as a nobleman, which also indicates that his engagement to Bathilde was arranged, and is partly motivated to act upon his love for Giselle by the freedom her world seems to offer. Unfortunately, he is not quite realistic enough to realise that a relationship with Giselle may never be possible, but he allows his heart to think and choose for him. However, his actions lead to tragic consequences that he could never have foreseen when Giselle goes mad after discovering the truth of his identity and dies of a broken heart. Albrecht is left stunned by grief and guilt and visits Giselle's grave so that he may grieve, but she suddenly appears to him as a spirit. Full of remorse, he begs for her forgiveness and she readily forgives him. But Albrecht soon enters a deadly trap set by the Wilis, who sentence him to death and force him into an endless dance. Giselle, however, refuses to let him die, but as the night goes on, Albrecht's strength ebbs away to the point where he collapses of exhaustion. When he reaches the brink of death, hope strikes as the morning bells chime to herald the dawn. Giselle's love has saved Albrecht and despite his pleadings, she returns to her grave and Albrecht is left alone to continue his grieving.


Hilarion is a gamekeeper, who is also in love with Giselle and was first performed by M. Simon. He is principally a mime role, but he dances very briefly in the second act and is usually presented as a virile, crude and suspicious peasant. He also appears to be quite arrogant and proud as he is very confident that he will marry Giselle and even appears to believe that there is something between them, even though she has clearly shown that she does not reciprocate his feelings. Hilarion's chances of winning her are thwarted for good when Giselle falls in love with Albrecht, making Hilarion bitterly jealous. Despite Giselle's rejection of him, Hilarion discovers Albrecht's true identity and deception and wastes no time in exposing him. In an arrogant attempt to win Giselle and humiliate his rival, Hilarion publicly tells Giselle that Albrecht is really a nobleman in disguise, but the outcome is not what he had hoped for, as Giselle goes mad and dies. After Giselle's death, Hilarion keeps vigil by her grave, but he is soon met by his downfall and pays the price for his role in Giselle's death with his own blood. He crosses the path of the Wilis, who force him into an endless dance and once he is drained of his strength, they drown him in a nearby lake.


Berthe is a mime role. She is Giselle's mother and appears only in Act I. Though not evident in the original libretto, one production (Paris Opéra Ballet, 2006) suggested that Giselle is the illegitimate offspring of the Duke of Courland, making her Bathilde's sister.

Giselle has a weak heart, so Berthe hovers about her protecting the child from physical stress such as dancing. Berthe is afraid Giselle will die and become one of the Wilis.

Berthe discourages the budding relationship between her Giselle and Albrecht (he is a relatively unknown newcomer to the community), but favors a relationship with the steady and stable, but dull Hilarion and her daughter.

Berthe has a long, tense mime solo in Act I in which she describes the Wilis and the dangers they present to young people. This solo is sometimes cut.

Bathilde and the Duke of Courland[edit]

Bathilde is the daughter of the Duke of Courland. She is betrothed to Albrecht. In the original production, Bathilde and her father arrive in the village on horseback. This entrance is cut in modern productions; Bathilde and her father simply walk on with the members of the hunting party.

Bathilde and her father are mime roles. Bathilde has been variously interpreted: in some instances she has been played as a vain, impatient, short tempered woman (making Albrecht's philandering understandable, but not forgivable), and in other instances she is played as a beautiful, gracious and generous young woman (making Albrecht's philandering puzzling, selfish, and cruel). She wears magnificent attire, which attracts Giselle's notice and admiration. In one production, it was subtly suggested that Bathilde's father is also Giselle's father. This would mean that Giselle is Bathilde's sister.

In the original production, the hunting party remained on stage to witness Giselle's death, but, in modern productions, Bathilde, her father, and the members of the hunting party slip away before the heroine's death. In the original production, Bathilde and her entourage appeared at the end of Act II searching for Albrecht, who collapsed in their arms. In modern productions however, Giselle sinks into her grave and Albrecht leaves the stage alone, dazed and grieving.

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis[edit]

Adèle Dumilâtre (1821-1909) as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (sometimes spelled Myrta) was first performed by ballerina Adèle Dumilâtre. The character of Myrtha is somewhat enigmatic, but what the libretto of the ballet seems to tell us is that she, as the queen of the vengeful, ghost-like wilis (pronounced villees), holds ultimate power over the ghostly sisterhood. The Wilis do her bidding in the Bavarian forest each night between twilight and dawn, seeking only male prey whom they force, with the help of seemingly magical mistletoe twigs, to dance until their hearts give out—or at least until they are so weak that a few Wilis can throw them into a lake to drown, if there is one conveniently located nearby.

Performance history[edit]

Poster for the first performance, 1841

Jocelyn Vollmar as Myrtha, 1947

Selected video[edit]


  1. ^ Beaumont 1996, p. 9
  2. ^ a b c Balanchine 1975, p. 459
  3. ^ Kirstein 1984, p. 147
  4. ^ Beaumont 1996, p. 16
  5. ^ Beaumont 1996, pp. 13–14
  6. ^ Beaumont 1996, p. 18
  7. ^ a b Beaumont 1996, p. 19
  8. ^ Smith 2000, pp. 170–72
  9. ^ Smith 2000, pp. 172–74
  10. ^ a b c Beaumont 1996, p. 20
  11. ^ Smith 2000, p. 174
  12. ^ Beaumont 1996, pp. 202–03
  13. ^ Guest 2008, p. 145
  14. ^ Smith 2000, pp. 172–73
  15. ^ Beaumont 1996, p. 53
  16. ^ Smith 2000, p. 173
  17. ^ Beaumont 1996, pp. 55–56
  18. ^ Beaumont 1996, pp. 55–58
  19. ^ Kirstein 1984, p. 146
  20. ^ Beaumont 1996, p. 57
  21. ^ Kirstein 1984, pp. 150–51
  22. ^ Cordova 2007, p. 116
  23. ^ Guest 2008, p. 148
  24. ^ Guest 2008, p. 149
  25. ^ Beaumont & 1996 pp. 85—86
  26. ^ Guest 2008, p. 354
  27. ^ Smith 2000, p. 176
  28. ^ a b Smith 2004, pp. 191–95
  29. ^ Beaumont, pp. 64–67.
  30. ^ Ashton, p. 36.
  31. ^ Beaumont, pp. 59–60.
  32. ^ Beaumont, pp. 60–61.
  33. ^ a b c d Guest, p. 351.
  34. ^ Cordova 2007, p. 113
  35. ^ Guest 2008, p. 349
  36. ^ Balanchine 1975, p. 192
  37. ^ Robert 1949, p. 169
  38. ^ Robert 1949, p. 160
  39. ^ Guest, p. 353.
  40. ^ Beaumont, p. 58.
  41. ^ Guest, pp. 353-354.
  42. ^ Guest, p. 357.
  43. ^ a b Beaumont 1996, p. 126
  44. ^ Beaumont 1996, pp. 126–27
  45. ^ Beaumont 1996, pp. 126–28
  46. ^ Beaumont 1996, p. 128
  47. ^ Beaumont 1996, p. 130
  48. ^ a b Beaumont 1996, p. 129
  49. ^ Robert 1949, p. 163

External links[edit]