In my last post we looked at the origins of the Giselle ballet story, who the choreographers and composer were and where the ballet is set. Today let’s take a more detailed look at the Giselle ballet synopsis, also known as the libretto.
Giselle is a two-act ballet. The first act of takes place in a village in a rural wine-growing region of Europe. The second act takes place in the forest and features ghostly spirits. This is the act that makes Giselle a ‘ballet blanc’ or white ballet, so typical of the Romantic era.
As you might expect from a ballet almost 300 years old, each ballet company has put its own stamp on it. So the Giselle you watch in Moscow won’t be identical in every plot detail to the one you watch in Sydney, and this will be different from one in London or San Francisco. But in many ways Giselle has stayed close to its origins. Generally, the first act features peasants in a country village, and the second act is danced by a grave in the woods. Only the costumes and sets change — and even then they are often more similar than not.
The notable exception is the Akram Khan Giselle. This production is a reinvention of the story and characters. It’s an exciting and innovative production, taking the ballet in new directions. But here we’ll be looking at the traditional Giselle.
Giselle Act 1
The ballet opens on the scene of a wine-growing village, the home of Giselle. Her admirer, a gamekeeper called Hilarion or Hans (depending on the country), enters and leaves a gift (sometimes flowers, sometimes gamebirds) at the door of the cottage that Giselle shares with her mother, Berthe. He hopes to win Giselle’s heart. Unknown to him, he has a rival.
No sooner has Giselle’s first admirer gone than a second one arrives. This is a young man in the outfit of a village boy, going by the name of Loys. However, we know he’s not what he seems: he wears the sword of a nobleman and has a loyal attendant with him. In some productions, his attendant helps Loys by taking his cloak and sword. In others, he completes his transformation in an empty hut or shed.
Now fully disguised, Loys knocks on Giselle’s door and hides. When she steps out, and dances for joy at the beautiful day, he surprises her. Though Giselle is at first shy and tries to return home, Loys charms her and wins her over.
When the gamekeeper returns, he discovers Giselle with her new lover. He confronts her, but she tells him she doesn’t love him. Angry in his rejection, the gamekeeper then confronts Loys. He becomes suspicious when Loys attempts to draw a sword (no longer at his belt, since he removed and hid it). The gamekeeper runs off, determined to discover the newcomer’s secret.
Loys reassures Giselle, and she is delighted to introduce him to her peasant friends who are gathering to dance. Giselle and Loys join in the dancing, until her mother appears. Berthe, upset to find her daughter dancing, warns her that she mustn’t. For Giselle, she explains, dancing will lead to death. (We see from Giselle’s occasional coughing and fatigue that she is in delicate health.) She leads her daughter away from Loys.
The Hunting Party
After Loys leaves (in some cases warned by his attendant), a noble hunting party arrives, led by a duke and his daughter. Giselle and Berthe offer them refreshments. Giselle is fascinated by the elegance of the richly-dressed daughter, whose name is Bathilde. When Bathilde catches Giselle in the act of admiring her outfit, she in turn is charmed by Giselle’s sweet ways. They talk and Bathilde asks Giselle if she has a sweetheart. Giselle says she does, and then Bathilde tells her that she too is betrothed. Delighted with the lovely girl, Bathilde gives her a necklace.
The peasants begin their festival, dancing in groups, pairs and solo. After watching a while, the nobles are weary and go into Berthe’s cottage to rest.
The dancing continues, and Loys returns. Full of happiness, Giselle is unable to resist joining in. She and Loys both show off their dancing before the crowd. In some productions, to complete the joy of her day, Giselle is also crowned Harvest Queen.
Just when everything seems perfect, the gamekeeper returns. He again confronts Giselle and Loys. This time, when they say they love each other and will be married, he brings down between them the sword that Loys had earlier hidden. Giselle doesn’t want to believe, but Loys draws the sword to threaten the gamekeeper. In retaliation, the gamekeeper blows the hunting horn to summon the noble hunting party.
The duke and his daughter emerge to find Loys, who they know as the nobleman Albrecht, in his peasant disguise. They ask him the meaning of this. The truth comes out: Albrecht is in fact the fiancé of Bathilde, and was only playing the part of the village boy. Ignoring Giselle, he lets Bathilde lead him aside and makes his apologies to her.
Giselle’s Mad Scene
Giselle is heartbroken at this betrayal. She pulls off Bathilde’s necklace, then falls to the ground, where Berthe tries to comfort her.
The famous ‘mad scene’ of Giselle follows, in which she gets back up with her hair now loose. Replaying the courtship in her mind, she flirts and dances with an imaginary Loys. Stumbling against Albrecht’s sword, she attempts to plunge it into her heart. She is stopped (sometimes by Albrecht, sometimes by the gamekeeper), and runs around in confusion, finally running to her mother’s arms.
Her heartbroken, and her mind lost to the past, Giselle can’t go on. She runs to Albrecht. As she reaches him, she falls to the ground dead.
Giselle Act 2
The act opens in the woods. The gamekeeper has gone to lay flowers at Giselle’s grave. While he is mourning, he is startled by signs that the Wilis (the spirits of dead maidens, wronged by men) are near. They are led by Myrtha, the pitiless Queen of the Wilis. She summons the rest of her ghostly band, who take a veiled, human form, like the brides they will never be. At her command they dance, cradling their arms as though holding the babies they will never have.
After retreating, they return without their veils and dance with Myrtha.
The grave has a second visitor. A heartbroken Albrecht has discovered — too late — that he truly loves Giselle. He too brings flowers for her grave. While he is mourning, the ghost of Giselle rises and dances with him.
Meanwhile, the Wilis have caught up with the gamekeeper. They take their revenge on him, as they do on all men found in the woods at night, by condemning him to dance to death. Merciless, they resist all pleas. Once they have dispatched the gamekeeper, they turn their attentions to Albrecht. It is his turn to die.
Giselle steps in to protect him. She shares his punishment, and by doing so, keeps him from death. At daybreak they must part, and Giselle returns to her grave having saved Albrecht’s life and offered him forgiveness.
Giselle Ballet Productions around the World
As mentioned earlier, different ballet companies have different productions of Giselle.
One example is that of Sir Peter Wright, which is the one currently performed by the Royal Ballet. This ballet puts more of a focus on Berthe, Giselle’s mother. In some other productions, she is a more mysterious figure who doesn’t interact with the gamekeeper or the villagers. Learn more about the Royal Ballet’s Giselle by Peter Wright.
Find the Full Story in the Giselle Ballet Novel: Coronet of Straw
Coronet of Straw is a new novel that tells the story of Giselle and those who loved her. This 95,000 word novel by Anna Faulkland sweeps you into a richly-detailed historical tale. Discover not only Giselle but travel back in time to uncover the tragic story of Myrtha, learning what happened to turn her into ballet’s most pitiless ghost maiden. Also find out the secrets Berthe so closely guards, and why the past is always at the heels of those who run from it.
Coronet of Straw is a unique read, not only is it the only Giselle ballet novel but also one that is based on the fiction that inspired the creators of the ballet. Find out how to get a copy of the Giselle story or discover other ballet novels.