In the work that was born out of Gautier’s moment of inspiration, there is a force even stronger than the Wilis’ power, however, and that is love. The heroine, Giselle, is a young woman who falls in love with a nobleman in disguise, Count Albrecht. The first act depicts a whirlwind romance. But when Giselle realizes that the man she loves is actually engaged to marry someone else, she loses her mind, and dies of heartbreak. In the second act, she is inducted into the sistership of the Wilis, ghostly, seductive, and powerful. But somehow, Giselle’s love for Albrecht has remained intact. She protects him, encourages him, and ultimately saves him from his fate at the hands of the Wilis.
This idea of the redemptive power of love, combined with Adolphe Adam’s limpid, dramatic, and tightly-constructed score, has captivated audiences ever since. The ballet premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1841, with a scenario co-written by Gautier and the playwright Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. The choreography was by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. The Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi danced the part of Giselle, partnered by the French dancer Lucien Petipa.