Romantic ballet in two acts
Music by Adolphe Adam
28th June 1841
Salle Le Peletier, Paris
Choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli
Original 1841 Cast
Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
Saint Petersburg Première
18th December 1842
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Original 1842 Cast
Première of Petipa’s first revival
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1884 Cast
Première of Petipa’s second revival
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1887 Cast
Première of Petipa’s third revival
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1899 Cast
Première of Petipa’s final revival
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1903 Cast
Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
Set in medieval Germany, Giselle tells the story of a beautiful young peasant girl, a free spirit, who loves to dance, despite her delicate health caused by her weak heart. Giselle is in love with the handsome stranger, “Loys”, who in truth is the Count Albrecht and is betrothed to the Princess Bathilde. When the forester, Hilarion, also in love with Giselle, exposes his rival’s true identity, the consequences are tragic – Giselle goes mad and the strain causes her heart to give out; she dies in Albrecht’s arms. After her burial in the forest, Giselle’s spirit is summoned from her grave to join the Wilis, the vengeful ghosts of young girls who have died before their wedding days. To avenge themselves, they rise from their graves every night and force any man who crosses their path into an endless dance, until he collapses and dies of exhaustion. When a remorseful Albrecht visits Giselle’s grave, she appears to him in spirit form. He begs for forgiveness and Giselle, her love undiminished, forgives him. However, Albrecht is targeted by the Wilis and their merciless queen, Myrtha forces him to dance. Unwilling to let him die, Giselle protects her lover, defending him until the morning bells herald the dawn. The Wilis are forced to disappear and Giselle, whose love has transcended death, is forever freed from their power and returns to her grave to rest in peace.
Giselle is the most famous of Romantic ballets and is the creation of three French artists: Ballet Masters Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli and composer Adolphe Adam. The ballet premièred in Paris on the 28th June 1841 with Perrot’s lover Carlotta Grisi, in the title role. It was a tremendous success and just nine months later, it was staged in London on the 12th March 1842 at Her Majesty’s Theatre. However, like many Parisian ballets, Giselle did not last in its Parisian or London homes. Perrot and Coralli’s version was performed for the final time at the Paris Opéra in 1868. It was in Russia that Giselle was given a permanent home; the ballet was staged in Saint Petersburg a year after its world première for the definitive Russian ballerina of the Romantic Era, Elena Andreyanova. In 1849, the year after Perrot became Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatres, he staged Giselle himself, assisted by Petipa, who was then Premier Danseur.
The Saint Petersburg Imperial Ballet would prove instrumental in preserving this new addition to their repertoire. The ballet about the innocent peasant girl who meets death by betrayal, but as a spirit saves her beloved has proven timeless. However, after Perrot’s departure from Russia, it would be Petipa’s revival that became the definitive version of the ballet from which all modern productions derive.
Petipa first revived Giselle in 1884 for the ballerina Maria Gorshenkova and for this revival, Ludwig Minkus composed a new pas de deux that Petipa added to the first act for Gorshenkova. This pas de deux did not find a permanent home in the ballet, but the music has survived and it resurfaces now and then when used in ballet galas. Petipa staged his second revival in 1887 for the Italian ballerina Emma Bessone. He revived the ballet for a third time in 1889 for Elena Cornalba and again in 1899 for Henriëtta Grimaldi.
In 1903, Petipa staged his final and most important revival for the young Anna Pavlova. Petipa himself coached Pavlova for the role, as he had coached her for the role of Nikiya in 1902, and with her remarkable jumps, abandon and soulfulness, Pavlova set a new standard for the role of Giselle. The ageing Petipa must have seen in this remarkable artist the embodiment of the Romantic ballerinas he had known and admired in his youth. The two other great interpreters of the epoch came in quick succession when Tamara Karsavina débuted as Giselle in 1909 and later, the great Russian Prima Ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, who made her début in the role in 1919.
Petipa’s final revival of Giselle was notated in the Stepanov notation method in 1903 during the rehearsals in which Petipa was coaching Pavlova in the title role. The notation scores are part of the Sergeyev Collection.
Petipa’s revival of Giselle was first performed in the west in Warsaw in 1904, with Pavlova dancing the title role. In 1908 and 1909, a troupe of dancers from the Imperial Ballet led by Nikolai Legat, Alexander Shiryaev and Anna Pavlova included the ballet in their tour of the Baltic States, Scandinavia and Germany. In 1910, Giselle made its return to Paris after a forty-two year absence when Sergei Diaghilev staged Petipa’s revival for the Ballet Russes. Diaghilev’s staging included choreographic revisions by Mikhail Fokine and decors and costumes by Alexandre Benois. Diaghilev’s revival of Giselle premièred on the 17th June 1910 at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra, with Tamara Karsavina as Giselle and Vaslav Nijinsky as Albrecht.
Did you know?
- Giselle was Anna Pavlova’s favourite ballet and one that she often danced in with her company on her global tours.
- Matilda Kschessinskaya made her début as Giselle in 1916 when she was 44 years old and it was one of the final roles that she ever danced in Russia.
- One of the greatest Giselles of the 20th century was Tamara Karsavina. Once in St Petersburg, one of her performances as Giselle was given instead to Agrippina Vaganova, which greatly peeved Karsavina, since the ballet was one of her favourites and she considered Vaganova to be unsuitable for the role. Much to her delight, however, Karsavina said that Vaganova’s performance as Giselle was a disaster.
- One interesting change that was made to Giselle in the 20th century was the ballet’s ending. In the original 1841 production, as Giselle returned to her grave, Bathilde and her retinue arrived looking for Albrecht. He took a few small steps towards them, before collapsing into their arms, which was parallel to the ending of the first act when the peasants crowded around Giselle’s body. This ending was retained by Petipa, but was later changed in the 20th century by the composer, Boris Asafiev to an ending concentrating solely on the two main characters. Asafiev cut the music of Bathilde and her retinue and replaced it with a romantic goodbye for Giselle and Albrecht. This ending eventually found its way to stagings throughout the world and is still used today in many modern productions. In 2011, Doug Fullington and fellow dance historian Marian Smith restored the original ending for Peter Boal’s production of Giselle for the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
- While Anna Pavlova is considered to have been one of the greatest Giselles of all time, it is Olga Spessivtseva who many consider to have been the supreme Giselle of the 20th century. Among those who were greatly inspired by her performance in the role was Galina Ulanova, who, as a child, had seen Spessivtseva perform Giselle in Saint Petersburg. When Ulanova danced the role in London as part of the Bolshoi Ballet’s first tour of the West in 1956, she asked Sir Anton Dolin how her performance of Giselle, especially in the first act, compared to that of Olga Spessivtseva.
The Pas seul is the famous variation for Giselle in the first act that is retained in many modern productions. This variation was composed by Riccardo Drigo in 1887, though the music is usually mistakenly credited to Ludwig Minkus, as Adam Lopez has discovered. It was added to Giselle by Petipa for Elena Cornalba. Unlike the other signature pieces created and added for various ballerinas before, the Pas seul found a permanent home in the Imperial Ballet repertoire and was performed by the ballerinas who succeeded Cornalba in the role of Giselle. The variation was first introduced to the West by Olga Spessivtseva when she performed it at the Paris Opéra in 1924. The Pas seul’s popularity with ballerinas, however, had its cost as the original variation was forgotten. Tamara Karsavina was the last ballerina to have opted for the original, but alas, her performance as Giselle was never recorded.
Peasant Pas de deux
The Peasant Pas de deux is another of the most famous passages in Giselle and has an interesting history. Before the 1841 Paris première, one of the Paris Opèra ballerinas, Nathalie Fitz-James was determined to have her own pas in Giselle. Like many of her colleagues, Fitz-James was a mistress of one of the Opèra’s most influential patrons and used her relationship with him to influence the arrangement of a new pas to be added for her. However, Adolphe Adam was unavailable at the time to compose more music, so Jean Coralli had to look elsewhere. In the end, he arranged a new pas de deux for Fitz-James to music by the German composer, Friedrich Burgmüller from his suite Souvenirs de Ratisbonne. The new pas was later christened as the Pas des paysans (aka Peasant Pas de deux); it was first performed by Fitz-James and the danseur, Auguste Mabille and has remained in Giselle ever since.
In Petipa’s time, the Peasant Pas de deux was performed by the likes of Tamara Karsavina, Mikhail Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky. The Sergeyev Collection includes notation scores for the pas de deux when it was performed by Agrippina Vaganova and Anatoli Obukhov. In most modern productions, the Peasant Pas de deux is performed by at least six dancers, which is not its original concept or how it was staged by Petipa.
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