Music by Adolphe Adam
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Music by Adolphe Adam
Choreography: Mikhail Venshchikov
Author of libretto: Ekaterina Safronova
Costume Designer: Tatiana Koroleva
In June 2021, Saint-Michel Ballet presented in Myasnikov Mansion, Saint Petersburg, the ballet Giselle. Return to Paris, staged by Mikhail Venshchikov.
Giselle is one of the oldest and most resonant names in the world of ballet. The ballet’s heroine is not just the symbol of compassion and of love that is “stronger than death,” she’s also the symbol of the romantic ballet with its refined esthetics and dramatic interplay of contrasts. There’s still a question, though: Giselle is a simple country girl, a peasant, where does Paris come from? How can you return to a place you have never visited?
To answer the question, we have to dig up a story that tries to make itself known, yet resists its full disclosure, with a lot of its hidden features and details remaining in obscurity.
180 years ago, in June 1841, Giselle, a ballet by Adolphe Adam, was premiered in Paris. The star of the show was the outstanding unrivalled Italian dancer Carlotta Grisi, the show was choreographed by Jean Carolli and Jules Perrot, the libretto was written by Saint Georges, Jean Carolli and Theophile Gautier. The show was a smashing success, the Parisian public was struck to the core. The trick of the ballet makers hit its mark. On one hand, the viewers found themselves immersed in the exotic atmosphere of the rural idyl and the fantasized world of the Wilis. On the other hand, the ballet reflected the spirit of the time, the spirit of Paris of the 1840s with its resplendent balls, whirling waltzes that swept the young ladies away, with the mercilessly accelerating speed of life.
The show so much applauded by Paris in June 1840s, was the joint effort of all its creators. Yet, in all honesty, the grain of the idea nurtured by the masters of the stage, had first been planted by the French poet, novelist and theater critic Theophile Gautier. As any true artist, he would sometimes draw inspiration from the works of his colleagues. The writer’s imagination had long been captured by Heinrich Heine’s rendition of the German legends, and particularly of the one about the Wilis, the brides who had died before their wedding. “The unfortunate young creatures refuse to stay in their graves, their dead hearts and dead feet retain their urge to dance, unfulfilled in their lifetime, and at midnight they rise from their graves, get together on the highways, and woe to the young man who meets them there.” These lines inspired Gautier to write a ballet scenario. He was, however, troubledby the thought that this “sweet and menacing phantasmagoria” had very little to do with real life, he felt the urge to get closer to his public, and, looking for the right subject matter, he turned to the poetry of a poet of his time, Victor Hugo.
“Knowing very little about the theatrical conventions and stage demands, I just wanted to rework Victor Hugo’s charming “Orientalia” into the first act. The public would see the lovely ballroom of a Prince: the chandeliers are lit, the vases filled with flowers, the buffets loaded, yet no guests are there. For a moment, the Wilis show up, attracted by the hope to recruit a new companion and by the urge to dance… Ladies and gentlemen arrive, causing the light shadows of the Wilis to flee. Giselle, who has spent the night dancing, is caught, same as the young Spanish Girl (a character of Hugo’s), by the morning chill, and the pale Queen of Wilis, unseen to the rest of the world, would place her cold hand on her heart,” Gautier wrote in his letter to Heine.
“No ghost would survive in Paris after midnight, when the revelry at the Opera reaches its climax. The boulevards are laughing and dancing, the whole world is on its way to the ball,” Heine wrote back to his friend. After that, Saint George was called in as a coauthor of the libretto, and he was the one who put together the well-known story about the disguised Count and the charming innocent peasant girl. He was also the one to send the Wilis into the more suitable night forest.
Yet today, when the glamor of the Paris balls is as vague and remote as the ethereal Wilis, the creator of Giselle. Return to Paris decided to merge these elements on stage, taking his cue from the prompts found in the notes of Theophile Gautier.
A moonlit night at the city cemetery. The young Count mourns by the grave of his beloved, blaming himself for her death. The Wilis, the spirits of the girls who have died before their wedding, surround him, performing a deadly dance. He begs for mercy, but finds no response in their calloused hearts. Forever will he lie forgotten inside the dark old crypt.
Their rancor satiated, the Wilis accept a new girl into their circle. The girl is the Count’s former beloved, Myrtle.
Time passes. Having discarded her earthly memories, Myrtle turns into the Queen of Wilis. This night the Wilis are calling in a young Spanish girl, who has perished from her untamed desire to dance. The prisoners of the Wilis, the living dead, sense her approach. Trying to quench the irreversible force of the ancient ritual, they decide to raise the Black Count from his sleep. His heart has been hardened by the years spent in his grave. He knows that only the compassion of a young innocent girl can take him back to his former world. By promising the Spanish girl to take her yet to another ball, the Count gets his chance to break free from the gloom of his imprisonment.
Paris. Couples dance in the resplendent ballroom of an old mansion. One couple stands out, it’s Giselle and Albert, their passion just catching fire. All of a sudden, the Wilis, unseen to the guests, make their appearance. Like shadows, they glide amid the dancing couples. Yet Giselle, pure in soul, is able to see beyond the border of the real world, and Myrtle tells her the story of love and betrayal. All that the girl has to do in order to see the Queen of the Wilis again, is to touch the floor with her hand three times.
Distracted by the vision, Giselle notices that her beloved now dances, enraptured, with a young Spanish girl. She was unable to consummate her passion in life, and now the Count has brought her to the ball in order to deprive those who get close to her of their love.
Shocked by Albert’s betrayal, Giselle calls to the Wilis. Myrtle and her ghostly companions return to the ballroom, and, relentless and vindictive, appear before the stunned guests. The Wilis draw Albert into their frenzied dance of death, and Giselle sacrifices her life in order to save him.