What resulted is one of the romantic era’s most poignant expressions, the tale of a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart, then returns in spirit form to rescue and forgive her unfaithful lover. Its charms are well known. But let’s look at it from a new perspective. This ballet is more than a show of delicacy, death and tulle. “Giselle” is 19th-century eco-art.
Man and nature are in a constant pas de deux here. We first meet sweet Giselle in the Rhine countryside. (Gautier was inspired by Heinrich Heine’s writings on Rhineland folklore.) It’s a locavore's heaven, where the girl and her fellow grape-growers live simply and in harmony with the land. Life revolves around the seasons; it’s harvest time, so the first act is awash in sunny gaiety.
By contrast, the mystery man with whom Giselle is in love — Albrecht, or, as the French call him, Albert — is secretive and wary. He’s a nobleman in disguise, a city slicker, slumming with the natives before his marriage to a princess. His life is a lie, and the cosmos knows it, even before it unleashes a coven of phantom virgins to torture him.
Nature has strong feelings in this ballet. It’s almost another character, a creative element with a language all its own. Take the flower symbolism — which, come to think of it, feels especially French. You can imagine the original production being stocked with blossoms by a Parisian marche aux fleurs. First come wildflowers, stand-ins for simplicity: In the Paris Opera’s version, Hilarion, the local gamekeeper who’s trying to woo Giselle, leaves a bouquet of common blooms at her door (which is much more romantic than the dead birds or bloodied bunnies he offers in other companies’ productions). They are cheerful, rustic beauties, grown in the native soil, just like Giselle herself.
Out of that same earth grows the flower that figures in the next scene, where it will become a barometer of truth: As Albrecht flirts with Giselle outside her thatched-roof cottage, she picks a daisy and plucks its petals to reveal her suitor’s intentions. He loves me, he loves me not . . . . As surely as if she’d turned over the tarot death card, Giselle sees she’s in trouble when the petals stop at “not.”
Albrecht is busted by a flower.
Giselle herself is fairly covered in posies — buds are woven through in her hair and pinned to her bodice, and during the harvest celebration she wears a floral crown on her head. They hint at the fertility she’ll never enjoy, and the vitality she’s about to lose. Nature’s bounty clings to her even as she is shattered by Albrecht’s duplicity and draws her dying breath.