The Madness of Giselle: an Exploration
Updated: Mar 31
On September 19 Boston Ballet opens a new production of Giselle, a ballet that has not been offered by the company since 2009. With that event in mind, an in-depth look at the mad scene, which might be described as the axis on which the ballet turns, seems timely. The discussion below, with video illustrations from the 1969 American Ballet Theatre production, starring Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn, is an attempt to explore how this crucial episode is constructed. Giselle, which has been beloved by ballet audiences for over 175 years, repays this kind of close attention.
As has often been noted, the two acts of the ballet are diametrically opposed in mood: the first, with its peasants, grape harvest, and visiting aristocrats is often called realistic; the second, with its spectral wilis who inhabit an eerie forest and avenge themselves on men by dancing them to death, is thought of as supernatural.
The question remains, however: just how realistic is the mad scene, which ends the first act? Although it depicts a mental breakdown, the scene itself is well organized, proceeding through recognizable sections governed by the music. Much of that music comes from previous scenes, but from where exactly? And how does the mad scene tell the story of what brought Giselle to the terrible impasse in which she finds herself at the end of act 1?
Before taking up these questions, it’s worthwhile to note that the mad scene, which appears chaotic despite its coherent design, contrasts with the rest of act 1, whose tranquil surface obscures an underlying meditation on order and disorder. Albrecht is, in essence, an agent of disorder. A nobleman in disguise, he violates the serenity not only of Giselle’s life but also that of her community by participating in the grape harvest as a fellow peasant when he is, in fact, an interloper.
Giselle's relationship to the gentry is made clear by her awestruck reaction to the fine clothes and jewelry of a visiting noblewoman. She thinks of the ruling class almost as a different species and knows that marrying one of its members is unthinkable. In the mad scene the social disorder Albrecht creates is reflected in the disorder of Giselle’s mind: "the centre cannot hold."
The ballerina’s challenge
Cyril Beaumont, who wrote a definitive study entitled The Ballet Called Giselle, noted that "this ballet [is] to the dancer what Hamlet is to the actor"* because of the range of emotions it presents. The mad scene, in particular, offers an unusual amount of interpretive freedom to anyone who undertakes the title role. As Anton Dolin (a well-known Albrecht on the British stage in the 1930s through the 1950s) said in Giselle: a Documentary (17:07) “the marvelous thing about Giselle … is that each dancer has her own personal interpretation, particularly of the mad scene, but all keep to the same notes; the frame … remains the same.”
Beaumont made a similar observation: “The scene of madness followed by Giselle’s … death can be deeply moving, but it is not without pitfalls for the ballerina. The state of madness cannot be reproduced with the stark realism of a pathological case ... the dramatic accents must be nicely timed and controlled so that tragedy does not degenerate into crude melodrama.”**
Maintaining the frame through judicious timing and control while also portraying a mind divorced from reality is part of what makes the mad scene so demanding for the ballerina.
Road map: elements of the mad scene
The musical and dramatic structure of the scene reveals itself through careful consideration of its elements, some of which look back to earlier events, so it’s important to begin with Giselle and Albrecht's initial encounter. Click on each link below to see the specific element of the ballet under discussion. (The cover picture stays the same, but the window will open to the correct excerpt.)
Interwoven in the following discussion is commentary from interviews with three Boston Ballet artistic staff members: principal dancer Viktorina Kapitonova (VK), who will appear in the title role; music director Mischa Santora (MS), who will be conducting the orchestra in its performances of composer Adolphe Adam's score; and ballet master Larissa Ponomarenko (LP), who was a celebrated Giselle, and who is staging this production with choreography she is adapting from that of Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa.
1. The "flower" theme
This sounds when Giselle sees Albrecht for the first time. Note that he is dressed as a peasant, which allows him to pass as one of them. This masquerade is his first lie.
CD to MS: Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, in “The Score of Giselle,” says, “Most of us probably find the échange d'aveux [i.e., the "flower" theme] too sweet for comfort, its toothachiness intensified by the endless reduplication of its questions and answers.”*** What do you think of that assessment?
MS: The theme is a bit stereotypical in its question-and-answer format, but I think it’s easy to belittle music that has a surface simplicity. Writing something simple is not easy. Leonard Bernstein put it eloquently when he said that it’s much harder to write a good tune in C major than to write 300 measures of 12-tone music. He was right about that. It’s a great theme, and that’s why it’s so effective when Adam brings it back later in the ballet.
2. The "vow" theme
What is actually the second phrase of the "flower" theme sounds when Albrecht pledges his fidelity to Giselle. She responds by asking him not to swear.
CD: This is Albrecht's second lie; he knows he is betrothed to Bathilde. When Giselle asks him not to swear, it’s likely that she objects on religious grounds because voluntary oaths are forbidden twice in the New Testament (Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12).
In Swan Lake Siegfried pledges his love to Odette, who also asks him not to swear. The two aristocratic men don’t seem to care about the church prohibition against such vows. The women do, which reflects a conventional belief of the time that women, being more obedient, take religion more seriously.
3. Flower plucking ("flower" theme reprise)
Giselle plays “He loves me, he loves me not" with a daisy. It tells her he loves her not, but then Albrecht, trying to convince Giselle otherwise, tears off an extra petal and presents the flower to her.
CD: Giselle puts her trust in nature, but when it gives her an answer, she doesn’t believe it.
VK: Because she doesn’t want that answer. When people want something, they ignore worrisome signs. She is upset when the flower says “he loves me not,” and then Albrecht says, “Look, you miscounted the petals.” And she thinks, “Maybe I did miscount.”
LP: When Giselle rejects what the flower says, she’s neglecting reality because she wants to continue living in a dream. I believe Albrecht was in love with Giselle, but being with her felt so good he did not think about the future.
4. Albrecht's variation (grape-harvest music, part 1)
Albrecht dances a solo during the peasants’ celebration of the grape harvest.
5. Duet (grape-harvest music, part 1, reprise)
Giselle and Albrecht dance to the same music together.
LP: Giselle can feel that there’s something different about Albrecht. He does not set boundaries for her. This is in contrast to her mother, who is possessive, and Hilarion, who demands her love as if he has a right to it.
6. Beginning of the pas de deux (grape-harvest music, part 2)
LP: Giselle is almost saying, “If I die tomorrow, I’ll die happy.” She wants to live in that world of happiness.
MS: There are a vast variety of versions of the score, which has been much edited over the years. We’re going to do a lot of the original orchestration, and it is much simpler than what you often hear. Later versions introduced doublings of the flute and piccolo as well as extra percussion. Our version will be sparser, but that also makes it more haunting.
What I’ve been struck by when studying the score is that the music makes sense in more than one place. It’s moving in the mad scene because it’s virtually unaltered from the first time we hear it, except for the transitions, so it works in different contexts.
7. Interlude – Arrival of the hunting party
An aristocratic hunting party arrives. Giselle is overwhelmed by the beauty of a noblewoman’s dress, and when the lady notices her admiration, Giselle backs away in embarrassment.
Enchanted by Giselle's charming manner, the lady presents her with a necklace. Giselle is thrilled with the gift and shows it off to her mother and the gathered onlookers.
CD: At this point Giselle does not know that the lady is Bathilde, Albrecht’s betrothed. The episode underscores the immense social and financial distance between her and the nobility.
8. Prelude to the mad scene 1
Hilarion presents a sword to Giselle. When he points to Albrecht as the owner of the sword, Giselle's death music sounds.
CD: The sword is something only an aristocrat would own. In denying that the sword is his, Albrecht tells a third lie.
9. Prelude to the mad scene 2
Albrecht kisses Bathilde's hand. Horrified by this, Giselle separates them, and the death music sounds again. Giselle then states that she is going to marry Albrecht, and Bathilde answers that she herself is Albrecht's betrothed. Giselle looks to her aristocratic lover for reassurance and, receiving none, casts off the necklace Bathilde gave her, runs to her mother, and falls at her feet.
CD: Abrecht’s dissembling about his engagement to Bathilde is his last and most destructive lie. When Giselle takes off the necklace, she is perhaps renouncing all connection with the aristocracy.
Adam’s use of the death music in two successive sequences creates a symmetry that moves the ballet away from realism and into the realm of symbolism and spirituality.
VK: When Giselle asks Albrecht whether he's going to marry her, and he doesn't respond, it means "no."
10. Mad scene 1
The “flower" theme is reprised as Giselle recalls when she met Albrecht.
CD: One of the ways we know she is mad is that her hair is disordered, which was a sign of insanity in the 19th century.
LP: The dancer playing Albrecht needs to be involved during the mad scene. As he watches her, it’s like a knife slicing through pieces of his heart.
11. Mad scene 2
The "vow" theme returns as Giselle remembers the promise Albrecht made to her. Then the "flower" theme is heard as she recalls plucking the daisy.
CD: In hindsight we know that Giselle is the flower Albrecht destroyed.
MS: When Adam brings back music from earlier in the ballet, the transitions are not as smooth as when we heard it before. We’re getting punched with these themes one after another. This is how Adam shows us Giselle’s madness.
12. Mad scene 3 -- sword sequence
Giselle finds Albrecht’s sword at her feet and tries to kill herself with it. Finally, the sword is taken away from her.
LP: She doesn’t really know it’s a sword; to her it’s an amazing, shiny object. She toys with the idea of killing herself, going in and out of consciousness.
13. Mad scene 4 -- vision sequence
Giselle sees a vision in the sky and follows it from one side of the stage to the other.
CD: Giselle may see a bird, a butterfly, or wilis (the spirits of young girls who were engaged to be married and died before their wedding day) in the sky. The flute solo is reminiscent of the mad scene in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. (Lucia debuted in Paris in 1839 and Giselle in 1841.)
LP: To me, this episode recalls the legend of the wilis that Giselle’s mother, Berthe, told her about. When Giselle sees the wilis in the sky, it brings her closer to death.
14. Mad scene 5
Giselle dances to a reprise of Albrecht’s variation (grape-harvest music, part 1) and the pas deux that followed (grape-harvest music, part 2). Then her body goes out of control. Utterly broken in mind and spirit, she falls.
LP: Giselle relives the best times of her life, which she spent with Albrecht. He is remembering with her, step by step. Memories are emotional moments that shape us as people.
The dance she does before she falls is a beautiful detail -- the mind pushes, and the body does not know how to respond. To the sane people looking on, it is outrageous and strange.
CD: When Giselle falls, there is no music; the orchestra is silent.
MS: Good composers can use silence. It’s one of their most dramatic tools.
VK: There’s silence because her heart stopped; she feels she cannot hold herself up.
15. Mad scene 6, Giselle's death
Giselle rushes through the crowd as if she has no connection to any other human being. She is caught by Hilarion and then by one of the onlookers. Finally, she runs to her mother and after leaving Berthe's embrace, she collapses and dies. As soon as she hits the ground, the death music sounds.
LP: Giselle was living a dream with Albrecht. It’s not his betrayal that kills her; it’s the end of the dream that does it. Going mad is her choice. It happens because her dream has ended.
MS: It’s a very 19th-century notion that when something horrible happens to you, you go mad, and it all happens very publicly. It’s not very realistic because you wouldn’t necessarily display your madness before the entire village, your mother, and a hunting party. This is a performance, and it’s highly stylized.
The onlookers function like a Greek chorus; when Giselle dies, they are in shock. Her previous fall built suspense and tension, so there was silence. Now the worst has happened; there’s no suspense anymore, so the music explodes.
CD to VK: What is the most difficult aspect of the mad scene for you?
VK: Probably it’s just to relax your body and not have tension in it because it’s not about being pretty. That’s the key to the mad scene. You don’t need to think about anything: your feet, how you’re standing, anything like that.
CD: So you’re going beyond ballet technique.
VK: Yes, you forget about ballet. Usually, when you go onstage, you want to have some presence, but you have to drop that. In the mad scene Giselle is simple and natural. It’s one of the more difficult things to do -- to forget that you are a ballet dancer. You need to get into that mood where you drop everything.
CD to LP: How will your production of Giselle be different from others?
LP: The goal is not to make it different, but to pursue an honest interpretation. It will inevitably be different because the dancers will interpret it differently and because the society and the political times we live in are different from those of other productions.
This ballet has withstood the test of time. I’m not arrogant enough to think I can make it better. I want to help my dancers capture the essence of Giselle. I learn so much from working with them.
The mad scene can’t be too realistic. The stager creates boundaries so the dancers can “speak” through the structure of the scene. Every rehearsal changes me. I bring a little of my life to Giselle, and she brings something to my life.
Just as actors need lines; dancers need a line of thought. Dancers convey ideas, so they have to have ideas in their heads; their minds cannot be empty. I encourage dancers to approach ballet on a profound level otherwise their interpretation will be shallow. Doing research helps; the more complete you are as a human being, the more interesting the work you produce will be. In terms of acting choices to be made, in the mad scene, as in all of Giselle, there are infinite possibilities.
CD to MS: What’s your opinion of the music overall? In The Shape of Love, Gelsey Kirkland called it “that old clunker of a score.”****
MS: One of the reasons this ballet has entered the canon is that there’s tremendous ingenuity behind the simplicity on the surface. It’s a beautiful, lyrical score with a remarkable number of dramatic, tragic moments. The mad scene is the center point of the ballet: act 1 builds up to it, and act 2 is a consequence of it. If the score didn’t work so well, we wouldn’t be doing it today.
CD: One of its most heart-rending moments occurs in act 2 when the "flower" and "vow" themes are reprised. At that point the music heard during Giselle's first meeting with Albrecht, which returns in the mad scene and leads to her death, becomes a means of saving his life. With this, the ballet achieves a circular structure: "in my end is my beginning."
*Cyril W. Beaumont, The Ballet Called Giselle (London: Dance Books, 1988, first published in 1944 and dedicated, in part, to Anton Dolin), p 80.
**Beaumont, op cit., pp. 107-108.
***Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, "The Score of Giselle," The Musical Times, Vol. 156, No. 1930, Spring 2015, p. 29.
****Gelsey Kirkland and Greg Lawrence, The Shape of Love (New York, Doubleday, 1990), p. 175.