Giselle is one of the world’s most popular romantic tragedies. Since its 1841 Parisian premier – characterized as an “unqualified triumph” – the “universal passion of the storyline has stood the test of time”. Many emotions – love, betrayal, jealousy, hurt – are portrayed in this beautiful classical ballet.
This is the third ballet I’ve enjoyed at the Bucharest Opera House. Each production was a memorable experience! Giselle’s heart-wrenching plot is more serious than the other two lighthearted ballets I’ve seen – Le Corsaire and Don Quixote.
Composer and Choreographer
Giselle is French composer Adolphe Charles Adam’s most popular and famous composition. In addition to his ballets, Adams wrote over fifty operas. Le Corsaire, his final composition, appeared at the Bucharest Opera House earlier this month.
“Twice, Charles Adam’s career was interrupted by revolution – the July Revolution of 1830, when France’s Charles X was overthrown, and eighteen years later, when his successor, Louis Philippe I, was brought down after the outbreak of the 1984 French Revolution.”
Romanian choreographer and dancer Mihai Babuşka is a graduate of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy. A former principal dancer of the Opera Ballet, Babuşka has been the head of the Bucharest ballet company since 2001.
Principal Dancers, Conductor, Orchestra
- Giselle – Greta Niță
- Albrecht – Robert Enache
- Hilarion – Gigel Ungureanu
- Myrtha – Kana Yamaguchi
- Ballet Masters Soloists – Oana Babușka, Laura Blică Toader, Andra Ionete
- Ensemble Ballet Masters – Raluca Ciocoiu, Alexandra Petrescu
- Conductor – Ciprian Teodoraşcu
- Bucharest National Opera Orchestra and Ballet Ensemble
“Ghost-filled, two-act Giselle tells the story of a young peasant girl who falls for the flirtations of a deceitful, disguised nobleman, Albrecht.” When Albrecht meets Giselle, he’s already betrothed to Princess Bathilde, daughter of the Duke of Courland.
The story is “drawn from supernatural themes of the German Romantic Era and Eastern European Folklore,” some of which I’ve been privileged to learn about during my travels. It’s a rich drama about “love, betrayal, life and death, vengeance, and forgiveness”.
Although Albrecht uses deception to pursue Giselle, his ruse as a peasant boy is eventually revealed. When Giselle discovers his true identity, she’s shocked and dies of heartbreak. After her death, Albrecht faces the “otherworldly consequences of his careless seduction”.
Adams uses “musical foreshadowing” in Giselle, with “recurring themes characterizing roles and moods throughout the ballet”. There’s a “love theme” which “ironically echoes during Giselle’s famous mad scene at the end of Act I”. The dark musical theme of the Wilis “shadows her mother’s premonition” and reappears when Giselle discovers Albrecht’s betrayal.
“Each dancer playing Giselle, Albrecht, Hilarion, and Myrtha brings their particular slant to the role, which can change the flavor of the whole ballet. It’s why contemporary choreographer George Balanchine compared Giselle to Hamlet, and why it’s a ballet worth seeing again and again.”
Librettists, Poetry, Prose
Librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier “took their inspiration for Giselle from two sources – a prose passage about the Wilis in De l’Allemagne by poet Heinrich Heine, and Fantômes in Les Orientales, a poem by Victor Hugo“.
In Giselle, the Wilis appear as ghosts adorned in white gowns. They’re “maidens betrayed by their lovers who died of broken hearts before their wedding day”. Seen as beautiful, cold, and deadly, “they’re evil, vengeful spirits waiting to lure the unwary to a watery doom”. The Wilis are led by their Queen, Myrtha.
Giselle is a blossoming young village girl “beloved by all for her sweet nature and ebullience”. She loves to dance, but has a weak heart. Giselle falls in love with Albrecht, Duke of Silesia, falsely known to her as “Loys,” a village peasant boy.
Duke Albrecht of Silesia is a nobleman and a village stranger. Albrecht disguises himself as a peasant to win Gisselle’s heart. He “knows full well that he’s already betrothed, and their romance can only end in tears”.
Hilarion, the village gamekeeper, is “consumed by unrequited love for Giselle,” unmasks Albrecht, and “watches his beloved die from the shock” of betrayal.
Myrtha Queen of the Wilis “regal, frozen, and yet alive with malice,” typifies the “monster we can all turn into, when we abandon mercy and can’t forgive and forget”
During the Middle Ages at the edge of a forest in Germany’s Rhineland, it’s autumn harvest time. Duke Albrecht of Silesia sees Giselle, a shy, beautiful peasant girl, and falls in love with her. He’s betrothed to Princess Bathilde, daughter of the Duke of Courland, but to deceive the innocent Giselle, “disguises himself as Loys, a humble village peasant”.
Hilarion, the village gamekeeper, is also in love with Giselle. He’s suspicious of Loys and cautions Giselle not to trust him. She ignores his warning. Delicate, fragile Giselle has a weak heart, and her protective mother, Berthe, forewarns her about Albrecht, believing Hilarion is a better romantic match. Giselle ignores her mother’s warning as well.
After a day of hunting, a group of noblemen stop at the village for refreshment. Albrecht sees them and hurries away, knowing he’d be recognized. Bathilde is among the hunting party, and Giselle dances for her. She’s charmed by Giselle’s sweetness, not knowing of her relationship with Albrecht. She learns they’re both engaged to be married, and gives Giselle a gold necklace as a gift.
The villagers continue harvesting. After the hunting party disperses, Albrecht emerges to dance with Giselle, who is named Harvest Queen. Hilarion discovers Albrecht’s “finely-made sword and hunting horn”. He uses the horn to summon back the hunting party. Hilarion presents his findings to the other villagers during the harvest festivities, proving the lovesick peasant boy, Loys, is really a nobleman promised to another woman. Albrecht “can’t hide and greets Bathilde as his betrothed”.
All are shocked by the revelation! Giselle “becomes inconsolable when faced with her lover’s deception,” knowing that they can never be together. She flies into a mad fit of grief and “begins dancing wildly and erratically, ultimately causing her weak heart to give out”. Giselle collapses before dying in Albrecht’s arms.
“In the original version, Giselle stabs herself with Albrecht’s sword. This explains why her body is laid to rest in the forest, in unhallowed ground, where the Wilis have the power to summon her. Most modern versions of the ballet edit out the suicide.”
“The Wilis gain their power in numbers, as they effortlessly move through dramatic patterns and synchronized movements, controlling the stage with their long white tulle dresses and stoic expressions, creating an ethereal atmosphere that builds as they gradually close in on Albrecht.”
“Hilarion and Albrecht turn on each other in rage before Albrecht flees into the forest in misery”. Berthe weeps over her daughter’s dead body.
Late at night, Hilarion mourns at Giselle’s forest gravesite. He’s frightened away by the arrival of the Wilis, led by their merciless queen, Myrtha. The Wilis “corner Hilarion, use their magic to force him to dance until he’s nearly dead, and then drown him in a nearby lake”.
“Their love unrequited, the Wilis can find no rest. Their spirits are forever destined to roam the earth from midnight to dawn, vengefully trapping any male who enters their domain and forcing him to dance to his death.”
“The Wilis dance and haunt the forest at night to exact their revenge on any man they encounter, regardless of who he may be, forcing their victims to dance until they die of exhaustion.”
Before disappearing into the forest, “Myrtha and the Wilis rouse Giselle’s spirit from her grave and induct her into their clan.” Albrecht arrives to lay flowers on Giselle’s grave. He weeps with guilt over her death. Giselle’s spirit appears. Albrecht “begs her forgiveness. Giselle, her love undiminished unlike her vengeful Wilis sisters, gently forgives him. She disappears to join the rest of the Wilis, and Albrecht desperately follows her.”
The Wilis see Albrecht, and “sentence him to death”. He pleads for his life, but Myrtha coldly refuses. Giselle’s pleas to save Albrecht are also dismissed. He’s forced to dance until sunrise, but Giselle “protects him by dancing with him until the clock strikes four, at which hour the Wilis lose their power”.
“The Wilis are affianced maidens who have died before their wedding day; the poor young creatures cannot rest peacefully in their graves. In their hearts which have ceased to throb, in their dead feet, there still remains that passion for dancing which they could not satisfy during life; and at midnight they rise up and gather in bands on the highway, and woe betide the young man who meets them, for he must dance until he drops dead.” Hugues Merle 1847
Love Triumphs Over Magic, Hatred, and Vengeance
“The power of Giselle’s love counters the Wilis’ magic. Albrecht is rescued from death. The other Wilis spirits return to their graves at daybreak. Giselle has broken through the chains of hatred and vengeance that control them. By defying their Queen and protecting Albrecht, Giselle breaks the curse and earns the right to remain at peace in her grave.”
“By saving Albrecht, Giselle also saves herself from becoming one of the Wilis. She’s released from their powers and will haunt the forest no longer. After bidding a tender farewell to Albrecht, Giselle returns to her grave at dawn to rest in peace.”
You can’t help but love this beautiful, dramatic story and amazing ballet! It was truly a brilliant performance by the National Opera Ballet! The nearly sold-out audience gave the dancers and orchestra a well-deserved standing ovation. For anyone who hasn’t seen Giselle, I highly recommend it.
Thoughts on Travel
After almost seven months of solo travel abroad, I’m finally getting comfortable. The learning curve in each country is challenging, but the end result is worthwhile. Occasionally, there are “difficult” days, but for anyone who really wants to experience a new environment, long-term travel makes the most sense. A certain degree of independence is helpful. If something goes wrong, there’s virtually no one to “save you,” except yourself. Focus and homework are essential, but it’s impossible to foresee the many ways to run amok. :o) That’s part of the adventure!