In the nearly 200 years since its first performance, Giselle has always been one of the world’s most popular ballets. It exemplifies the Romantic movement of the early 19th century, with its tragic story of unrequited love and encounters between humans and supernatural beings.
The story of Giselle was inspired by De l’Allemagne, a work on Germany by the German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine. In it, Heine described the Wilis, ghosts of young women who pursue men for revenge. The poem ‘Ghosts’ by Victor Hugo (author of Les Misérables) also provided material, telling a tragic story of a young girl who becomes ill and dies after dancing at a ball. The poet Théophile Gautier wrote a story for Giselle based on both of these sources, but it was not dramatic enough for the story of a ballet. Playwright Jules-Henry Vernoy de Saint- Georges, who had more experience with ballet scenarios, rewrote the story into its current form.
Act I: The Village. The setting is the Rhineland of western Germany, during the Middle Ages. Albrecht, the Duke of Silesia, is in love with the peasant girl Giselle, but he is already engaged to Bathilde, daughter of the Prince of Courland. The gamekeeper Hilarion, who is also in love with Giselle, sees Albrecht arrive with his squire. Albrecht, disguised as a peasant named Loys, knocks on Giselle’s door and playfully woos her. He swears that he loves her, but Hilarion is suspicious of his motives and tries unsuccessfully to separate Albrecht and Giselle.
The villagers dance to celebrate the harvest. Giselle’s mother, Berthe, does not approve of her daughter’s love of dancing. She fears for Giselle because her daughter has a weak heart. Berthe also has a vision of her daughter becoming one of the Wilis, the ghosts of women who did not marry because they were betrayed by the men they loved.
The hunting party of the Prince of Courland arrives, including Bathilde, Albrecht’s fiancée. Hilarion and Albrecht both leave the scene. The villagers offer hospitality to the hunting party. Bathilde is charmed by Giselle and offers her a gold necklace, then departs with the hunting party.
Albrecht, still disguised as Loys, reappears to dance with Giselle. Hilarion has discovered Albrecht’s sword and reveals it as proof that ‘Loys’ is actually a nobleman in disguise. Hilarion then blows Albrecht’s hunting horn to call back the Prince of Courland’s party. When Bathilde sees Albrecht, he is forced to acknowledge her as his fiancée, in front of Giselle. Giselle is heartbroken and goes mad. She dances wildly and then commits suicide with Albrecht’s sword (or, alternately, dies of a weakened heart). Her mother, Hilarion and Albrecht are left grief-stricken over her body.
Act II: The Graveside. The Wilis, led by their queen Myrtha, appear at Giselle’s grave to make her one of them. At this time of night, they will vengefully pursue any man they find and force him to dance to his death. Albrecht and Hilarion both arrive separately at Giselle’s grave to mourn her. Giselle appears to Albrecht and forgives him. They dance together, but she then disappears with the rest of the Wilis and Albrecht follows her.
The Wilis pursue Hilarion, force him to dance and then drown him in a nearby lake. Albrecht is also trapped by the Wilis and condemned to death. Giselle resolves to protect Albrecht and dances with him. The power of Giselle’s love for Albrecht saves his life, and also frees her own spirit from becoming one of the Wilis, so that she can rest in peace.
Video: Giselle - Act I pas de deux: Sophie Sarrote and Antonio Sutera, La Scala Ballet.