They’ve Come Undone: Giselle, Lucia and Romantic Madness

Posted May 10, 2018 10:54 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — When the mind loses its moorings, it unsettles others. Even while the deranged person is cast adrift from aspects of reality, he or she can see things others don’t — and is often obsessed by those alternative realities. Madness is immediately dramatic, and its drama can take many forms.

This spring, madness has been widespread on New York’s stages. “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heavens!” says Shakespeare’s King Lear (played in April by Antony Sher with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), before he then goes through not one mad scene but four. Madness brings him horror, obsession, compassion and much more, yet it does not cause his death.

There is a different pathos to characters who die mad and unenlightened. “Giselle” opens American Ballet Theater’s eight-week season at the Metropolitan Opera House this week.

The first act ends with the heroine’s madness and death, one of the most celebrated acting scenes in ballet. Also at the Met Opera House was Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” (ended on May 10), with the most famous of opera’s many mad scenes.

In Romantic drama, it’s mainly women who lose their wits, and the cause is very often a trauma in love. Shakespeare was one of the ancestors of the Romantic mad scene, which chiefly developed in French ballet and Italian opera. The madness of Ophelia in “Hamlet” had made a powerful impression in continental Europe, especially in Harriet Smithson’s hugely influential performance in Paris in 1827.

But another factor was the 18th-century Enlightenment, which cast new attention on the cult of sensibility, on emotion so intense that, in life as well as onstage, it caused illness and death. What’s worth noting is how madness takes opera and ballet in opposite directions.

Lucia (opera) and Giselle (dance), like many heroines before them, are suddenly catapulted out of ordinary consciousness by heartbreak. Lucia, a noblewoman, finds too late that she has been tricked into marrying Arturo. Edgardo, her only love — not pledged to another as she thought — has cursed her for treachery.

On her bridal night, she stabs Arturo to death offstage, and now she enters with his blood on her white robe. Yet her wandering thoughts are mainly happy: Although Edgardo isn’t present, she confides in him, announcing she’s escaped his enemies to be reunited with him.

Giselle, a peasant girl, has fallen in love with Albrecht, whom she believes also to be a peasant. They share the same love of dance, and when he makes a grand oath of love to her (the gesture of a nobleman), she instead shows him how it’s done in her village: “He loves me, he loves me not,” played out with the petals of a daisy. But he cheats with this petal test, and soon we find that he’s been cheating all along — that he is a nobleman and engaged to Bathilde, a woman of his own class. (Bathilde, another victim of his deception, has befriended Giselle earlier in the act.)

In shock, Giselle runs across the stage to her mother, as if to refuge, but she flings herself on the floor, to hide her head from the facts she cannot bear to face.

When she lifts herself from the floor, it’s evident her mind has switched elsewhere, and immediately we see that she, like Lucia, is back in the moment when she was happiest in love. The stage convention is that, for this scene, her hair has suddenly fallen loose over her shoulders: Like her wits, it’s unbound.

In what follows — a fragmented stream of consciousness — Giselle, like Lucia, relives moments we’ve already watched her share with her lover. Again, she tries the “He loves me, he loves me not” petal test (this time the flower is imaginary). And, although Albrecht and Bathilde are present, she takes the arm of an imaginary Albrecht and does some simple jumping steps with “him” — as they did earlier in the act.

What makes the pathos of these scenes painfully enthralling is how they’re conducted in public. Nakedly, these heroines now re-enact private romance before people who have known them their whole lives.

In opera, madness releases the voice and gives it wings. Lucia’s madness leads her to imagine the wedding with Edgardo she never had. It also takes her singing into wordlessness and into the stratosphere. In a famous coloratura cadenza, she reaches Nirvana. Then, though her voice still cascades brilliantly, her mind turns to despair and pathos: Reliving the moment when Edgardo renounces and curses her, she at once foresees her own death.

In “Giselle,” by contrast, the mad scene has almost no dance. Unlike any of the ballet’s other great incidents, it’s an exercise in silent acting. When Giselle relives memories of love, the few dance steps she tries are earthbound. Nothing here takes wing. Madness never takes her onto point or to open up into the air.

As in “Lucia,” Giselle responds to sudden flourishes from the flute (or glass harmonica), as if hearing calls from the beyond. In “Lucia” that prompts exalted vocalism from the heroine, whereas Giselle’s heart-catching rushes across the stage in pursuit of something unseen — but what? it’s gone before we can tell — don’t lead her into dance.

This is the legacy of an 18th-century tradition in which ballet was a vehicle for high-voltage acting, with scenes such as this one mattering more than dances. But it was the second act of “Giselle” that pointed the way to the future — to a story that hangs all upon dancing. The dead Giselle rises as a spirit from the grave, as one of a ghostly sorority who express themselves in dance alone.

Although many individual Giselles have made powerful impressions in the mad scene, you can see why this anti-dance form of madness proved a dead end for ballet. In opera, by contrast, madness revealed one of the art’s great potentials. (The soprano Maria Callas, who had already untapped the dramatic potential of Lucia, whose madness was often rendered prettily anodyne, made an entire LP called “Mad Scenes” in 1958.) Madness becomes a climax in operas by Boito, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Britten and others.

Although I have avoided the word “lunatic” here, I needn’t have. Its original meaning is moonstruck, and it connects to sleepwalking — to those whom the moon sends into a changed state of mind. Lady Macbeth and the first Mrs. Rochester in “Jane Eyre” come to mind, as does the heroine of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”

Dancegoers here will supply another example: the title character of George Balanchine’s “La Sonnambula,” a ballet first presented with the name “Night Shadow” (1946). Dressed (as Lucia conventionally is) in a long-sleeved white gown and (like Lady Macbeth) carrying a night light in one hand, she has often been compared to Mrs. Rochester: the madwoman in the attic.

She rushes on point in one horizontal path after another, as if boxed into a confined space. Her eyes are open, and yet she does not even see the Poet’s hand when he passes it before her eyes. Despite her outer calm and strange purposefulness, she becomes the embodiment of all this ballet’s pain.