The action takes place in Paris in the 30’s of the 19th century
Episode 1. Morning Paris
The square before the Paris Opera is living its usual, everyday life. Artists are hurrying to the morning rehearsal. Lucien, a budding composer, makes for the Theatre accompanied by his friends. He is full of hope and dreams of having his works produced on this illustrious stage... Lucien goes up to the director, but the latter gives him the brush off. His friends advise him to persist and, picking up his courage, Lucien goes through the hallowed door.
Episode 2. The Paris Opera Ballet Foyer
A rehearsal is in progress — the dancers are doing the morning exercise. The lesson is twice interrupted by the appearance of the ballerinas, Florine and Coralie, accompanied by their patrons — Camusot, who finances the Theatre, and the Duke, who is a social bon vivant. They represent, as it were, two competing parties: Camusot supports Coralie, the Duke — Florine, her rival.
A nervous Lucien enters the room. Under the curious eyes of those present the composer becomes flustered, but begs permission to perform one of his works. Lucien begins to play — at first timidly, then with greater feeling. However, his listeners do not take to his passionate music, full of romantic aspiration. The groups of guests and dancers who, initially, had gathered round the composer, start to melt away. The outcome becomes clear — for the Theatre Director is bound to abide by the opinions of his all-powerful patrons. Lucien’s hopes are shattered. Desperate, his spirits in his boots, he is about to leave, when he is stopped by Coralie. She had been profoundly moved by his music. Making use of her influence with Camusot and the Director, Coralie obtains a commission for Lucien: he is to write the music for La Sylphide, a ballet specially created for Coralie.
Lucien is struggling over the composition of his ballet. Enter Coralie. Her appearance inspires the composer, in her he acquires his Muse. The main theme of the future ballet is found. Inspiration and love uniting forces, give birth to the music.
Back stage at the Paris Opera
Premiere of the ballet La Sylphide. Lucien is on tenterhooks: how will the public react to his debut? Scenes from the ballet develop in his imagination. In place of the Youth, a romantic in search of happiness, he sees himself. The romantic scene of the avowal of love unfolds, bathed in elegic tones: separation is inevitable. The Sylphide must vanish — terrestrial love is forbidden for her. Slipping away as lightly as a dream, she flies off...
The premiere is a resounding success. All applaud the young composer and Sylphide-Coralie. Florine is full of envy, the Duke shares her sentiments.
Coralie is happy with her Lucien. The success of La Sylphide has brought them fame and love. The lovers would be totally happy were it not for the fact that everything in her home reminds Coralie that she is not free, it all belongs to her protector the banker.
Camusot turns up unexpectedly. Vexed because he is not admitted for such a long time, the banker suspects Coralie of infidelity. Coralie tries in vain to pass off Lucien’s top hat, which Camusot has discovered, as part of her concert costume. Not wishing to lie, Lucien appears from the hiding place Coralie had found for him. All that remains for Camusot to do is to make his exit. The banker, however, is confident that life will again deliver Coralie into his hands.
Coralie and Lucien are as happy as can be: it is as if a terrible load has fallen from their shoulders — they are free.
The Duke’s Palace
Forgetting their recent rivalry, Camusot and the Duke are united by their wish to subdue Lucien to their will, make him their obedient pawn. Their plot is simple: they will get the young man into their power by dazzling him with the bait of glamorous fame and money and force him to write a ballet for Florine. Florine hands Lucien an invitation for a ball at the Duke’s palace.
Masked ball at the Duke’s palace. Enter Lucien. He has changed — tail coat, white gloves, blase gestures. In the mad whirl of the masquerade, surrounded by beautiful women and elegant men, the young man loses his head. Lucien pursues an unknown woman wearing the Sylphide costume and tears off her mask — it is Florine, he is defenceless before her charm. At the Duke’s invitation, Lucien takes his seat at the card table and starts playing: everything has been arranged so that luck is with him. The pile of gold at his side grows bigger and bigger, and the force of an unknown passion clouds his reason. All his hopes have come true: Paris is at his feet; money, women, fame — all are his. At a tense moment in the game, Florine appears. The seductive passion of her dance completely wins the young man over, and he falls at her feet.
Coralie is worrying about Lucien. Friends try in vain to distract her. Lucien soon appears, but not alone — with him are Florine and the Duke. Lucien is in a very highly strung state. He pulls gold out of his pockets by the fistful — his winnings. Success, happiness, recognition, love will now be his forever. Intoxicated by his winnings and wine, Lucien fails to notice his friend’s torment and alarm.
The Duke and Florine leave, taking Lucien with them. His departure is a catastrophe for Coralie. It mentally kills her, all her illusions come tumbling round her head. The gold Lucien left on the table gives rise to another outburst of despair. Her friends, the involuntary witnesses of the dramatic scene try, without success, to calm her down. A desperate Coralie bids farewell to her love.
The Paris Opera Ballet Foyer
Lucien is disappointed and oppressed. It is as if, having attained what he wished for, he had lost his freedom and creative independence. He is composing a ballet for Florine, but Florine, the Duke and the Ballet Master reject his ideas. They want an obedient composer of banal, gay little tunes which are essential for an effective, but empty ballet about a dancer who wins over bandits with her charms. Gritting his teeth, Lucien improvises, giving in to their demands. The Duke’s hypocritical approval flatters the composer, who obediently trots out trivial motifs which are easy to dance.
Ballet In the Mountains of Bohemia
The Duke pays claqueurs to applaud and give a rapturous reception to the new ballet, written for Florine.
Premiere. Bandits, performed by female dancers, lie in wait for passers by on a main road. A carriage appears in which a ballerina (Florine) is traveling with her maid. The bandits stop the carriage and threaten the travelers with death, but the ballerina’s charms tame them. As they dance round her, the police arrive on the scene, summoned by Florine’s quick-witted maid.
Claqueurs ensure a triumph for Florine, but not for Lucien: his music is no more than banal accompaniment. Only a polka, a motif commissioned by Florine, earns him applause. The Duke and Camusot cynically congratulate Lucien, Camusot presents him with a sum of money. Lucien’s illusions, his hopes of success and glory, his dreams of seeing Paris at his feet go up in smoke. Realizing that for the sake of money and hypocritical compliments he had betrayed his love for Coralie and his musical talent, a horrified Lucien rushes out of the theatre.
The Seine embankment shrouded in thick fog. Lucien has run to the embankment with the thought of committing suicide. But he lacks the determination to die. In a deeply perturbed state, the young man thinks of Coralie — the only person who sincerely loves him. To return to her, to return his former self by making good his betrayal — with these thoughts in mind he goes in search of Coralie.
The room is empty: all the furnishings have been sold to pay off debts. Coralie’s maid Berenice is packing her mistress’s theatre costumes. At the sight of her Sylphide tunic, Coralie is overcome by memories of her former radiant illusions, now lost forever.
Enter Camusot with a confident tread. An experienced operator, he has calculated everything right and persuades Coralie to return to him. Coralie is indifferent to her fate: it is all the same to her whether she dies or returns to Camusot. She leaves with Camusot.
Lucien comes running into the empty room, but it is too late. Coralie has gone. And an anguished Lucien realizes his lost illusions will never return.