Giselle (or The Wilis) is a romantic ballet in two acts.
Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint Georges and Théophile Gautier wrote the libretto.
They took their inspiration from a prose passage about the Wilis in “De l’Allamagne” by Henri Hine, 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 created the choreography.
The ballet was first presented at the Paris Opéra on 28 June 1841 with Carlotte Grisi as Giselle, Lucien Petipa as Albrecht and Jean Coralli as Hilarion.
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.
At its premiere, the quality of the music for Giselle was the most convincing argument to date in favour of composing music for ballets rather than arranging pre-existing melodies.
On 12 March 1842, the ballet was first presented in England at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London with Carlotta Grisi and Jules Perrot in the principal roles.
On 30 December of the same year, the ballet was first presented in St Petersburgh at the Bolshoi Theatre with Elena Andreyanova as Giselle.
The version passed down to the present day was staged by Marius Petitpa for the Imperial Ballet (today the Kirov/Marinsky Ballet). Petitpa’s final work on Giselle is held today as part of the famous Sergeyev Collection in Harvard University Library Theatre Collection.
Giselle passed out of the repertory of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1867 and did not return to the western stage until Petitpa’s definitive version was performed by the Ballets Russes in 1910 at the Palais Garnier, with Nijinski as Albrecht and Karsavina as Giselle.
The music for Giselle was written at night, as was everything else Adolphe Adam composed. It is said that Giselle took less than a week to complete. Adam, who always worked quickly, would argue that a work was not necessarily important because it had taken a long time to achieve.
Apart from the fact that the score was the first to use all new composition, another prominent feature of the music is the use of ‘leitmotiv’ (a theme that recurs in the music to refer to a specific character or emotion).
Adam, not only repeats themes as they are, or changes their keys to affect the mood, but also changes their tempi and rhythms to highlight the dramatic intent of the story.
Only a piano score was published in 1841. All orchestrations were made from this until Henri Busser published an orchestra score in 1924. A number of changes in the music had become ‘standard’ by this time.
Ludwig Minkus made several changes to the score for the St Petersburgh productions, and his variation was inserted in the 1864 production. It was so popular that it has been added into the original Adam score.
It is inevitable that, over the years, the choreography has been changed due to the oral tradition by which choreography passes on. Preservation of ballet to this day comes through Russia, not France.
Many of today’s productions of Giselle rely on the revisions made by Petitpa, whose version is better documented that the Paris original. Also in Russia the ballet was in continual production, as opposed to France where it was dropped for a number of years.
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