Librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier took their inspiration for the plot from a prose passage about the Wilis in De l’Allemagne, by Heinrich Heine, and from a poem called “Fantômes” in Les Orientales by Victor Hugo.
The prolific opera and ballet composer Adolphe Adam composed the music. Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot created the choreography. The role of Giselle was intended for Carlotta Grisi as her debut piece for the Paris public. She became the first to dance the role and was the only ballerina to dance it at the Opéra for many years.
The ballet is about a peasant girl named Giselle, who dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover is betrothed to another. The Wilis, a group of mystic and supernatural women who dance men to death, summon Giselle from her grave. They target her lover for death, but Giselle’s great love frees him from their grasp. The Wilis are particularly haunting characters. They are the spirits of virgin girls who died before they married. These creatures were very popular in Romantic era ballets. Led by Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, they gain their power in numbers as they effortlessly move through dramatic patterns and synchronized movements, and control the stage with their long tulle dresses and stoic expressions. Appearing ethereal, the presence of the Willis is intended to create an eerie mood that builds as the ballet continues and they enclose on Albrecht. They are ruthless and hateful of men because they have all died of a broken heart. Giselle finds forgiveness in her heart for Albrecht, but she knows the Wilis will not do the same. Their goal is clear and they are relentless on their quest. The Wilis are one of the most iconic characters in Giselle and dominate the second act.