San Francisco Ballet presents ‘Giselle’ – the most famous of the Romantic era ballets

Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco in the Act II pas de deux from Tomasson’s Giselle
© Quinn Wharton

As part of San Francisco Ballet’s 2023 Repertory Season, the Company presents Giselle – one of the oldest classical ballets still being performed today and the most famous of the Romantic era ballets. This production, by Helgi Tomasson, features choreography by Tomasson after Jules Perrot, Jean Coralli and Marius Petipa, and is set to Adolphe Adam’s sumptuous score, with with additional music, orchestrations and arrangements by Friedrich Burgmüller, Ludwig Minkus, and Emil de Cou.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Giselle © Erik Tomasson

Giselle was the result of the collaboration of the three French artists – ballet masters Perrot and Coralli, and composer Adolphe Adam, who in 1841 were commissioned by the Ballet du Théâtre de l’Academie Royale de Musique to create a new ballet for Italian dancer Carlotta Grisi. Adam had previously composed for this company, and he co-opted librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier to assist with the storyline.

Yuan Yuan Tan in Tomasson’s Giselle © Erik Tomasson

It was Gautier who initially started working on the story, drawing inspiration from two sources – the poem Fantômes from Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales, which told of a Spanish girl who died after a night of frenzied dancing, and a passage in prose entitled L’Allemagne by German poet, writer and literary critic Heinrich Heine, about a Slavic tale of supernatural maidens called Wilis, young brides-to-be who die before their wedding day. Adam then brought in Perrot and Coralli to choreograph the work, and Giselle premiered at the Théâtre de l’Academie Royale de Musique in Paris on 28th June, 1841.

In 1842, this version of Giselle was staged in St Petersburg, and this is where Marius Petipa became involved in the choreography. As Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg from 1871, he staged four revivals of Giselle between 1884 and 1903, and it’s this final version on which most interpretations have since been based.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Giselle © Erik Tomasson

The ballet tells of a frail young peasant girl who is betrayed by her beloved, the aristocratic Count Albrecht, as a result of which she dies of a broken heart. Giselle finds herself in a moonlit glade surrounded by the supernatural Wilis and their queen, Myrtha. Albrecht enters the glade to lay flowers on Giselle’s grave, and is summoned by Myrtha and her Wilis to dance to his death. The spirit of Giselle – ever forgiving, and touched by his exhaustion – pleads for mercy on his behalf, and Myrtha ultimately frees him from the vengeance of the Wilis.

Giselle is a ballet of grace, beauty and passion. The first act features the young and innocent peasant girl, at first bewildered, a bit nervous and delighted at finding love, with colourful scenes of her friends celebrating with her – until Giselle discovers the truth about the man she loves, experiencing utter devastation at his betrayal. The second act is ethereal and mystical, with shadows of the Wilis flitting across the stage, the icy figure of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, determined to see Albrecht humiliated, but countered by the gentleness and compassion of Giselle.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Giselle © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet stages Giselle in 10 performances at the War Memorial Opera House, between February 24 to March 5. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra is led by Music Director & Principal Conductor Martin West. More detail and information on ticketing can be found on the San Francisco Ballet website. []

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Ballet program notes

Adolphe Adam

Jules Perrot

Jean Coralli

Marius Petipa

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