Opening Night of “Giselle”: Society, Current Events and Fashion

February 17, 2012

Giselle, Now Playing

Opening Night of Giselle

Paris – June 28th, 1841

 You’re a well-to-do Parisian with a ticket to the event of the year – the opening performance of Adolphe Adam’s new ballet Giselle at the Paris Opera.  You’re about to witness ballet history . . .

The Saint-Denis district of Paris, circa 1840

The World You Live In

It was only a little over a year ago that Britain’s Queen Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert, in the social event of the century.  You’re living in the dawning of the age of photography; the daguerreotype, a primitive form of photography using iodine vapors and copper plates to transfer images, has been around for only about four years.  The very first postage stamp (the “Penny Black”) was just invented in England a few months ago.  And you’ve probably been reading a lot in the news over the past year and a half about the group of explorers who discovered this new continent called Antarctica.

Things You Don’t Know Yet

Arc Du Carrouse, Paris, France 1841

Just a few blocks away where you’re sitting lives baby Claude Monet, now eight months old.  (He was baptized a month ago as Oscar-Claude, but his parents just call him Oscar.)  It will be 65 years before he paints his most famous work, Water Lilies.  Meanwhile, little Edgar Degas is seven years old, and his first painting of dancers (Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet La Source) is still twenty-seven years away.

Three years from now, the Irish Famine will sink that country into poverty and starvation, and nearly a quarter of the population will die or emigrate to America or Australia.

Six years from now, the African nation of Liberia, which was settled by freed American slaves, will be named an independent republic.

Seven years from now, the French government will be completely turned upside down and the Second Republic ended by the February Revolution, in which class warfare erupts into bloodshed, with riots breaking out in Paris’ working-class districts and brutally suppressed by the army.  Working-class uprisings spread all over Europe, leading to mass immigration of these workers to the United States.  Many find work out West, where miners have just sighted gold in the Sierra Nevadas.

Eleven years from now, Harriet Beecher Stowe will strike a major blow for civil rights in American with her groundbreaking novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Thirteen years from now, Commodore Matthew Perry’s treaty with the Tokugawa shogunate officially opens Japan up for trade with Europe, leading to a fanatical style craze throughout France for all things Japanese.  Soon the hip Parisian wouldn’t be caught dead without at least one piece of Japanese furniture or textiles in their homes.

Twenty years from now, shots are fired on Charleston’s Fort Sumpter, marking the beginning of the Civil War, which will claim 600,000 lives in four years.

Thirty-eight years from now, Thomas Edison will build the first incandescent lightbulb.

Forty-one years from now, Russian Jews will establish the very first Zionist settlements.

Fifty-two years from now, New Zealand will become the first country to grant women the right to vote.

 

Evening Wear for the Trendy Balletgoer

It’s a grand occasion, the premiere of a new ballet, so you’re sporting the latest fashions.  Fortunately you live in Paris; everyone else in the Western world has to wait anxiously for news of the latest French styles to reach them, but all you have to do is walk out your front door and stroll down the Champs-Elysees to see what well-heeled Parisians are wearing.

Porträt der Prinzessin di Sant’ Antimo (Francesco Hayez, 1840)

1841 is the year of the side curls, mesdemoiselles.  They’re worn in clusters framing the face, with a center part and the rest of the hair pulled back, probably with ribbons or jewels for evening.  The v-shaped bodice of the dress and bell-shaped skirt (white for evening, chérie) accent the silhouette for the rib-crushing corset you’re wearing under that evening dress.  You’re buried in petticoats, since the crinoline (a wire or bone cage worn under the skirt to create a full shape) won’t be invented for another ten years or so.  Arms and a modest amount of shoulder are bared for evening, but a sheer shawl and opera-length gloves would be de rigeur.

Alexander von Humboldt (Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843)

Top hats were getting taller in the 1840’s, so the best-dressed gentlemen knew the higher, the better.  The ideal silhouette for jackets was a nipped-in high waist (the full, rounded chest and dropped waist we associate with the Victorian era wouldn’t be trendy until later in the decade).  And a white cravat for evening, of course, my good man – nous ne sommes pas des animaux.

Intermission Conversation

The Paris Opera House

You and your date chat about art and music as you wait for the curtain to go up.  You’re a big fan of this young up-and-comer Alfred Tennyson, whose poem “The Lady of Shallott” was published eight years ago.  It wasn’t a big success, but you’ve heard he’s writing again, and you have great hopes of more from him.  The papers say Queen Victoria is a fan, so he’s likely to have quite a career.  Your date is more interested in this young Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, whose third opera just premiered a few months ago in Milan and rocketed him to the top of the pop culture charts.  Hopefully it will come to Paris soon so you can see it.  You’re both big fans of Camille Corot, the hottest painter working in Paris today.

You and your date go down to the lobby at intermission, to see and be seen, and on your way down from the boxes you pass the composer Richard Wagner, loudly complaining to his companions about the inferiority of Adolphe Adam’s music.  (Be grateful you’re not sitting next to him during Act II, since a week from now you’ll read in a German newspaper that he loathed the Wilis, even though that was your favorite part.)  Maybe composers are harder on other composers than anybody else, but for you, it’s a novel and intriguing concept to have a composer write one entire ballet score; this is the first ballet you’ve seen where the music wasn’t bits and pieces from lots of other things.  You and your friends have really enjoyed how personal the music seems with the repeated motifs that introduce the characters.  It’s a revolutionary notion for ballet.

Everyone is buzzing about the dazzling Carlotta Grisi, a rising star on the ballet scene.  There were some whispers before the show opened that she only got the role because Gautier, who wrote the story, is in love with her; but after seeing her transform from innocent peasant girl to madwoman to ghost, nobody can doubt that she was chosen for her talent.  The Paris Opera’s ballet master Jean Coralli choreographed the work, but everyone in Paris knows that Grisi’s teacher (and lover) Jules Perrot served as a sort of uncredited advisor on the production, helping her bring the character to life.  The real-life romances surrounding Carlotta Grisi are no less delicious than the one she just portrayed onstage . . .

But by far the most exciting thing everyone is talking about is this new ballet style Coralli and Perrot incorporated into their work.  You’re the only one of your companions who saw Marie Taglioni ten years ago in the “Ballet of the Nuns” from Act III of Meyerbeer’s 1831 opera Robert le Diable, and you saw her again a few years later in La Sylphide, but the rest of your group has never seen dancers en pointe before.  “So fluid and effortless!”  “The Wilis floated like real ghosts!”  “The dancers looked completely weightless, like they were flying!”  The excited chatter of voices goes on and on.  Privately, you think Giselle is miles beyond the previous two in terms of how they use this technique to move the story forward and develop the characters.  It’s not a gimmick anymore, it’s a way to give the audience a real sense of who the characters are.  You’re pretty sure this ballet is destined to become a classic.

Things You Don’t Know Yet

Arc Du Carrouse, Paris, France 1841

Just a few blocks away where you’re sitting lives baby Claude Monet, now eight months old.  (He was baptized a month ago as Oscar-Claude, but his parents just call him Oscar.)  It will be 65 years before he paints his most famous work, Water Lilies.  Meanwhile, little Edgar Degas is seven years old, and his first painting of dancers (Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet La Source) is still twenty-seven years away.

Three years from now, the Irish Famine will sink that country into poverty and starvation, and nearly a quarter of the population will die or emigrate to America or Australia.

Six years from now, the African nation of Liberia, which was settled by freed American slaves, will be named an independent republic.

Seven years from now, the French government will be completely turned upside down and the Second Republic ended by the February Revolution, in which class warfare erupts into bloodshed, with riots breaking out in Paris’ working-class districts and brutally suppressed by the army.  Working-class uprisings spread all over Europe, leading to mass immigration of these workers to the United States.  Many find work out West, where miners have just sighted gold in the Sierra Nevadas.

Eleven years from now, Harriet Beecher Stowe will strike a major blow for civil rights in American with her groundbreaking novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Thirteen years from now, Commodore Matthew Perry’s treaty with the Tokugawa shogunate officially opens Japan up for trade with Europe, leading to a fanatical style craze throughout France for all things Japanese.  Soon the hip Parisian wouldn’t be caught dead without at least one piece of Japanese furniture or textiles in their homes.

Twenty years from now, shots are fired on Charleston’s Fort Sumpter, marking the beginning of the Civil War, which will claim 600,000 lives in four years.

Thirty-eight years from now, Thomas Edison will build the first incandescent lightbulb.

Forty-one years from now, Russian Jews will establish the very first Zionist settlements.

Fifty-two years from now, New Zealand will become the first country to grant women the right to vote.

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About Claire

Writer Claire Willett is the Grants & Content Manager for Oregon Ballet Theatre. She is the 2011 Oregon Literary Fellow for Drama and was the Summer 2011 Writer-in-Residence at the I-Park Artists Colony in East Haddam, CT. Three of her plays have been produced as staged readings in Portland’s annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works. Her fourth, entitled "Dear Galileo," will be produced as a staged reading in January 2012 by Artists Repertory Theatre, funded by a Career Opportunity Grant from the Oregon Arts Commission. Her next project is a chamber opera based on Norse mythology co-written with Los Angeles composer Evan Lewis. Claire has a B.A. in Theatre from Whitman College in Washington and attended the Paul A. Kaplan Theatre Management Program at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City. She is obsessed with coffee, Watergate, vintage dishes, English mystery novels, Leonard Cohen, "Star Wars," afternoon naps, obscure Catholic saint lore, dinosaurs and Christmas.

View all posts by Claire

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One Comment on “Opening Night of “Giselle”: Society, Current Events and Fashion”

  1. Alice Fernandez Says:

    Very engaging and well-done. Thank you, Claire!

    Reply

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