Sunday Night with an Australian Classic

Once upon a time, before the bears!, Sunday nights were spent watching SeaChange, a really, really good show and also hilariously funny.

SeaChange is the story of Laura Gibson (played by Sigrid Thornton, who won consecutive Logies in 1999 and 2000 for Most Outstanding Actress for her role as Laura), a tenacious corporate lawyer whose entire life implodes in one day — though it’s apparent that things have been disintegrating without her noticing for years. From here, she decides impetuously that she must return to the last place she and her family were happy: the fictional seaside town of Pearl Bay (set in Barwon Heads and St Leonards on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria).

Sigrid Thornton (as Laura Gibson) and David Wenham (as Diver Dan)

She decamps with her reluctant teenage kids, leaving her husband awaiting trial for his shady business dealings after the revelation that he’s also been sleeping with her sister. Laura takes up the post of magistrate of the town, where she has the delicate task of trying to become an accepted part of the community while also sitting in judgement on its oddball inhabitants. She finds new romance; first with laconic heartthrob Diver Dan (David Wenham in his breakout role), and later with the sexy foreign correspondent Max Connors (William McInnes).

Sigrid Thornton (as Laura Gibson) and William McInnes (as Max Connors)

Each episode has a satisfyingly nuanced theme, and Laura — once a snobbish big city powerbroker — learns more about the ambiguities of truth and justice from the more humble residents of Pearl Bay than she ever did in the world of corporate law.

The show aced the Bechdel Test more or less every episode!!, as it presented a broad array of nuanced women with rich inner lives in a great character setup.

Hopefully that will continue, despite the show returning to commercial TV in a reboot this year, as it will have the opportunity to tell the stories of three generations of women. Laura’s daughter Miranda is now in her 30s and she has a daughter aged 18. As might have Laura! The new season picks up just after the final episode in 2000, when the Pearl Bay townsfolk defeated plans to turn their community into a toxic waste dump and Laura Gibson revealed she was pregnant!

Based on Nine’s preferred serial drama milieus there is a concern that the show will not touch on anything especially deep. You need ABC or SBS for that. Unfortunately ABC declined to be involved with the reboot. There is hope that the quality of the stories will be maintained as original creator and head writer Deb Cox returns as executive producer alongside Sigrid Thornton, Fiona Eager and David Mott.

Little bears are the picture of undivided attention as they are watching the original series 🙂

Well, attention might be divided between the TV and the yummy lamingtons 🙂

Lamington donut from Mary St Bakery (coconut custard, raspberry jam, chocolate glaze, coconut)
Grown-up lamingtons from Wild Berry – Lamingtons with Armagnac poached cherries and mascarpone cream

The Mighty Bolshoi Is Coming

To Brisbane… again… as part of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s international ballet series initiated by Leo Schofield and Ian McRae. In 2013 they performed Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream. This year Spartacus and Jewels will be on show. And this time, little bears will be there to see the mighty ballet company perform Jewels!

Rubies – Bolshoi Ballet in a scene from Jewels, 2013 London

The Bolshoi Ballet also toured Australia in 1994, with Spartacus and La Bayadere. We last saw them in 1987, when they toured Australia and New Zealand with a program of Giselle (Act II) and gala divertissements from Spartacus, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, La Sylphide and others.

We saw Nadezhda (Nadia) Pavlova in the role of Giselle, one of the finest Bolshoi ballerinas, gifted with superb technique. Pavlova was drafted by the Bolshoi in 1975, at the age of nineteen, where she soon became a big sensation. In four short years, she learnt and danced the leading female roles in Spartacus, The legend of Love, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Giselle, Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet, Love for Love, and These Charming Sounds – all major full-length ballets. She also danced in many divertissements from works which were no longer performed in their full-length forms. She resigned from the Bolshoi Theater in 1995, in protest to the change in the Bolshoi leadership.

Pavlova married Vyacheslav (Slava) Gordeyev in 1975 and they were the Bolshoi’s superstar husband-and-wife team of the 1970s. Artistic difference with the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director Yuri Grigorovich, meant Gordeyev was not included in the 1987 tour (he was still performing occasionally with the Bolshoi). By 1987 he had also divorced Pavlova and had taken over running the Moscow Ballet from former Bolshoi soloist Irina Tikhomirnova. Before Tikhomirnova died of cancer in 1984, she asked Gordeyev to take over the company. But Pavlova and Gordeyev dancing together, wow!

Widely considered as the premier ballet company in the world, the Bolshoi Ballet is one of the great names in performing arts. Around the world, the Bolshoi Ballet is synonymous with scale (Bolshoi means ‘big’ and the Bolshoi are good at big and brash), grandeur and the brilliant physicality of its dancers. A long way from its origins in an impoverished orphanage and the work of the Italian dancer Filippo Beccari, hired in 1773 to teach its foundling children.

Most people believe that ballet is Russian, but the Russians imported this French and Italian, urban and court art. The origins of ballet lie in the Renaissance and the rediscovery of ancient texts. Classical ballet grew up in Europe’s courts; at its origins it was an aristocratic etiquette and political event as much as it was an art. The history of ballet begins with the formal alliance of French and Italian culture when the French king Henri II wedded the Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533. The Italians performed simple but elegant social dances known as balli and balletti, which consisted of graceful, rhythmic walking steps danced at formal balls and ceremonies, or on occasion stylised pantomime performances: the French called them ballets. But classical ballet would come of age in Russia and by the beginning of the 20th century classical ballet would become a quintessentially Russian art. To this day, ballet matters more in Russia than it ever has elsewhere, before or since.

Before Peter the Great there was no ballet at all in Russia. Today it is difficult to imagine just how isolated and culturally impoverished the country was before Peter came to power in 1689. For centuries, church and state had been inseparable: the Russian tsar was an Orthodox prince and Moscow was cast as a “third Rome”. Western Europe went through the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the scientific revolution, but Russia remained cut off and bound up in the timeless liturgies of the Orthodox faith. It had no universities and no secular literary tradition; its art and its music were almost exclusively confined to icons and sacred songs. Musical instruments were considered sinful, and dance was something peasants did. Court ballet did not exist.

In striking contrast to their west European counterparts, the Russian elite lived unadorned lives: they dwelt in wooden houses and slept on benches (or on top of the warm stove) and their clothing and manners resembled those of peasants: rough and indecorous. Men coveted long and bushy black beards, which they took to be a sign of godliness and masculinity (God was bearded and women couldn’t grow one). Only demons were depicted as clean-shaven. Fancy foreign dress was prohibited, and foreigners living in Moscow were quarantined in their own “German Suburb”, a ghetto of European culture coveted by a few and dismissed by most. Muscovite society was not society in any form recognisable in the West: it was rigidly segregated by sex and men and women mixed little in public; on those rare occasions when they did, ladies were expected to be quiet and bashful with downcast eyes. In the mid-17th century a trickle of Western theatre and fashion (mostly Polish) began to seep in, but nothing could have been further from the Russian cultural imagination than the refined artifice and etiquette of classical ballet.

Peter the Great
Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838

With Peter the Great, however, all of this changed. Peter despised the claustrophobic rituals that governed life in old Muscovy: he gravitated to the German Suburb, learned Dutch and German, took fencing and dancing lessons, and wore Western clothes. He was clean-shaven. But this was only the beginning: what Peter wanted for himself he also wanted for Russia. In the early years of the 18th century he thus invented and planned an ambitious purpose-built and European-style city: St. Petersburg. Constructed from the ground up by sheer force of labour and at great human cost on a swampy, barren strip of land at the westernmost edge of the country, the city was a self-conscious metaphor for Peter’s Westernising project. The idea was not only to shift the country’s centre of gravity away from Moscow and “open a window” onto the West; it was to radically re-create Russian society in a European image — to make Russians into Europeans.

To this end Peter subordinated the Church, incorporating Orthodox institutions into his own vastly expanded bureaucratic apparatus and placing himself, as tsar and emperor (he was the first to take the title), at the apex of Russian society. Indeed, Peter the Great imagined himself as a Russian Louis XIV: the Peterhof Palace was modelled on Versailles, with gardens and vistas precisely measured to match the original. And although Peter himself never learned to speak French, his courtiers — corralled at his new court in his new city — were encouraged to do so. It was an extraordinary cultural transformation: by the end of his reign the Russian elite had relegated their native tongue to the backwoods of their imaginations. Decrees in the early years of the century forced the point home on other fronts too: Western dress was mandated and beards prohibited for all men, regardless of rank. State inspections were routinely conducted and fines — and eventually a beard tax — levied on those who failed to conform.

Peter controlled his courtiers through strict rules and hierarchies. The Table of Ranks, established in 1722, created fourteen civil ranks (based on German titles) each with its own special uniform; etiquette up and down the ladder was formally prescribed and carefully observed. To acquire proper comportment and manners, aristocratic children were taught to dance from an early age by French and Italian ballet masters, and courtiers were required to learn the latest dances for balls and ceremonial events. The rules were carefully laid out in The Honorable Mirror of Youth, a compilation of Western courtesy books designed to educate courtiers in the intricacies of refined behaviour, including dancing. And because foreignness conferred authority, Peter arranged marriages for his children to European nobility and made his own personal life a parable of Westernisation: he sent his first wife, who hated his modernising ideas, to a monastery and married a Lithuanian peasant girl who successfully recycled herself into a paragon of elegance and fashionable beauty. Peter crowned her empress of Russia.

Classical ballet thus came to Russia as etiquette and not as art. This mattered: ballet was not initially a theatrical “show” but a standard of physical comportment to be emulated and internalised — an idealised way of behaving. And even when it did become a dramatic art, the desire to imitate and absorb, to acquire the grace and elegance and cultural forms of the French aristocracy, remained a fundamental aspiration. Thus from the moment ballet entered Russia, it was inextricably bound up with the Westernising project that would shape the country’s history for generations to come. It was part of “making Russians European”, and its prestige owed everything to its foreign, and especially Parisian, stature.

Ballet’s formal artifice, however, like the manners and language of the court, did not come easily to the Russian elite. Indeed, Russian noblewomen were often initially reluctant to dance with foreign men or visiting dignitaries and found it difficult to overcome what one Western observer described as “their in-born Bashfulness and Awkwardness” — not to mention their gauche manners. A French visitor in the early days of Peter’s reign noted that when he greeted a Russian lady at court in the French custom, she downed a cup of vodka to his health. European etiquette and dance were deeply alien — a foreign language — and it was difficult for Russians to reproduce, as one historian has put it, a “convincing cultural accent”.

In private moments even the most accomplished courtiers often reverted to Russian ways. Many elegant homes built after a Western fashion had separate quarters with a stove and icons and warm comfortable carpets instead of cold marble floors. French observers were especially quick to note the split personality — the strange grafting of West onto East — in the minds and bodies of the Russian elite. In the early 19th century Alphonse de Custine commented on the “stiff and constrained” carriage and manners of Russian courtiers, who seemed to him at once uncannily Parisian and utterly contrived; and when Théophile Gautier attended a ball at the Winter Palace some years later he was amazed to see a grande dame of “Orthodox Petersburg” dancing a refined polonaise (a dance of Polish and, by then, Parisian vintage) with a Mohammedan prince: “under the white glove of civilisation”, he famously noted, “is concealed a little Asiatic hand.” But it was Tolstoy in War and Peace who perhaps best captured the divided life of the Russian aristocracy. In her truest moment, Natasha, the French-educated “little countess, reared in silk and velvet,” drops her Parisian airs and spontaneously breaks into an authentic Russian folk dance. She has never seen this dance before but intuitively knows its “inimitable, unteachable, Russian gestures”: she stands, arms to the side, and instinctively makes “the movements of her shoulder and waist” that reveal “all that was in … every Russian soul.”

Besides court etiquette, ballet had two other related points of entry into Russian culture. The first was military. The state ballet school in St. Petersburg (which would later become the world-renowned Imperial Theatre School) was established well before the Imperial Theatres themselves and had its origins not in the ballroom but with the Imperial Cadet Corps, itself modelled on German and French institutions. In 1734 the French ballet master Jean-Baptiste Landé took up a position there teaching young cadets, and Empress Anna was so impressed with the results that she agreed to establish a formal school of dance. Four years later Landé began with twenty-four children, all sons and daughters of palace servants. He was drawing on a long west European tradition: the connection between ballet and fencing, and between dance and military manoeuvres more generally, reached back at least to the Italian Renaissance, but nowhere was the connection more strongly established and sustained than in Russia. The training of dancers there (to this day) would be characterised by military-style discipline and regimentation, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, long after such practices had been abandoned in the West, Russian ballets featured full-scale battles, staged with the help of military experts (and hundreds of extras) with “troops” of dancers in rigid lines and arrayed in symmetrical formations.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Western ballet resonated with Eastern Orthodoxy. The Russian Church was (and remains) opulently theatrical: faith has less to do with doctrine than spectacle. It is best seen and heard, rather than read or talked about. Anyone who has attended a Russian Orthodox service will immediately sense the parallels with the theatrical arts: the crowd of worshippers gathered in attentive suspense awaiting the ritual opening of beautifully decorated gates and doors, the unveiling and revelation of sacred icons of great richness and splendour (gold, deep blues, inlay), and above all the power of music and visual beauty to draw the “audience” into a concrete but otherworldly life. Echoes of this kind of liturgy could also be found in the ceremonies enacted at court. The entrance of the tsar to a ball or formal function, for example, was an elaborate and highly staged affair in which a crowd of attentive courtiers, all with assigned roles, stood in awe as the magnificent ballroom doors were thrown open to reveal the Orthodox prince and his entourage in their dazzling splendour; a full procession with musical accompaniment followed. It was but a step from these religious and courtly rites to the lavish theatrical productions that would grace the Russian ballet stage.

Empress Catherine The Great circa 1770
Portrait by court painter Dmitrii Levitsky

In 1766 the empress Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796, created the Imperial Directorate, formally establishing three state theatres in the capital city of St. Petersburg: a Russian troupe (considered the least important because it was not foreign), a French drama company, and a Franco-Italian opera and ballet (which would later become the Maryinsky and then, in the Soviet period, the Kirov Ballet). At first, performances were held at a variety of imperial venues, but in 1783 the Bolshoi Stone Theatre was built to house opera and ballet (not to be confused with the later Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow). The new theatre rivalled any in Paris, Vienna, or Milan: it held some two thousand people, and by the early 19th century seating followed a strict social hierarchy. High officials, officers, and Imperial Guards occupied the front orchestra, while lesser officials were relegated to the tiers; ladies and families took up the loges; clerks, lackeys, servant girls, valets, and artisans packed themselves into the galleries. Thus the ballet was not (as is commonly assumed) performed exclusively for the benefit of a courtly aristocratic elite. To be sure, just as the king shaped public taste in France, so the tsar had supreme authority and audiences carefully followed his lead, but performers also played to this wider society.

Ballet masters were almost all foreign. It was a familiar cast of characters: in 1766 Gasparo Angiolini arrived from Vienna and stayed on and off for over ten years. Noverre’s student Charles LePicq was invited to stage his mentor’s Jason and Medea in 1789, and a steady flow of French-trained ballet masters followed throughout the 19th century, including Charles-Louis Didelot, Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Léon, Pehr Christian Johansson (August Bournonville’s former student), and Marius Petipa. Dancers came too: Louis Duport, Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and dozens of other less well-known French, Italian, German, and Scandinavian performers. They came for the money: St. Petersburg was notoriously frozen and dirty, but as one ballet master explained, “the pay is really good”. Yet there was more to Russia’s allure than cold, hard cash: the Imperial Theatres had tremendous resources, and the simple fact of being foreign gave ballet masters a stature and degree of artistic authority few could hope for back home.

That was St. Petersburg. Moscow was an entirely different case. It faced resolutely east: the spiritual home of “Holy Rus”, it was dominated by its merchants and traders, many of them Old Believers who held fast to their Orthodox faith and stubbornly resisted change. Industrious and inbred, the Muscovite elite did not aspire to speak foreign languages nor did they evince much interest in French etiquette and dancing. It was thus fitting that in Moscow the Imperial Theatres were established later and had weak ties to the court. Indeed, the origins of what would eventually become the great Bolshoi Ballet lay in an impoverished orphanage and the work of the Italian dancer Filippo Beccari, hired in 1773 to teach its foundling children. Later a quirky Englishman, Michael (Menkol) Maddox — magician, mechanic, and set decorator — incorporated these orphans, along with unemployed actors and some serfs belonging to a friend, into a ragtag theatrical troupe. The enterprise limped along, barely able to foot its bills, until it was finally taken over in 1805 by the state and eventually brought under the umbrella of the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg. For the rest of the 19th century, it would remain a poor relation to the more splendidly appointed St. Petersburg company; it had fewer resources and a less formal and more Russian and folk-dance-inspired character. Its moment would come later, in the 20th century, when Moscow reclaimed its place as the country’s political and cultural capital.

The Imperial Theatres were thus created by the empress: they were the stepchildren of the Russian state. But they also had other, far more modest origins in the “serf theatres” run by rich landowners on their country estates. Here we come to the properly Russian roots of the imperial ballet, the native aspect of this otherwise imported French and Italian, urban and court art. For unlikely as it may seem, the character and development of ballet in Russia — in spite of its Parisian airs — were also inextricably entwined with the country’s most entrenched and rural institution: serfdom. The Imperial Theatres of Moscow and St. Petersburg were both fed by serfs from serf theatres, and it was this strange social and political phenomenon that provided a blueprint for the art.

Serf theatre had its origins in 1762 when Catherine the Great broke the hold that Peter had exerted on the nobility, freeing them from their obligation to serve the state. Many noblemen took advantage of their newfound liberty to return to their country estates. Catherine, moreover, was generous: to her most loyal servants she awarded large tracts of land complete with the peasants who lived on them, and during her reign, some eight hundred thousand peasants were transferred from state service (a slightly better condition) into serfdom; her son and successor Paul added another six hundred thousand.

Russian country manors were often miniature replicas of the autocratic state, with the lord acting as tsar and presiding over his people with absolute and arbitrary authority. Although there was certainly nothing original in this repressive social arrangement (Russians liked to point out that Americans too had their slaves), there was something uniquely Russian in the theatricality of life on these estates. Indeed, the drama of “acting European” at court was ritually reenacted, at enormous cost, in manors across the countryside, and many noblemen went to great trouble to educate their house serfs in Western languages and literature, manners and dancing, in order that they might convincingly “play” the role of courtiers to the nobleman’s tsar — female serfs in particular were trained to attend balls and ceremonial functions. In this spirit, aristocrats also built and staffed imitation court theatres to entertain themselves and the local population. The productions they mounted were modelled on the French and Italian operas and ballets performed at court, and were often of high quality.

The extravagance of these country estates is hard to grasp today. By the late 1780s, Count Nikolai P. Sheremetev, one of the wealthiest men in Russia, owned as many as one million serfs. He had eight serf theatres. His modest estate at Fountain House, for example, had 340 servants, and almost everything in the manor — food, clothing, art, furniture — was imported from western Europe at staggering cost. Paintings by Raphael, Van Dyck, Correggio, Veronese, Rembrandt, and others decorated the galleries and there was a library of some twenty thousand books, mostly in French. At his estate at Kuskovo (similarly outfitted) there were two theatres, one indoor and another for fresh-air entertainments, along with a large lake on which sea battles could be staged for the pleasure of his guests, who sometimes numbered up to fifty thousand. At Ostankino, Sheremetev built an even more sophisticated theatre with state-of-the-art technology, designed by a French architect. His serf performers were beautifully trained by the best available teachers — many imported directly from Europe, including the French ballet master (and student of Noverre) Charles LePicq.

For the serfs it was a contradictory existence. Freed from their menial tasks and often well educated, many became genuinely cultivated artists and individuals. Yet their lives were also harshly constrained: women were especially burdened since they often doubled as concubines or staffed private harems. The line separating sex and dance was notoriously thin: to take just one example, Prince Nikolai Yusupov, an estate owner and director of the Imperial Theatres in the 1790s, liked his female serfs to undress onstage at the end of performances; whips and canes were favoured props.

Serf theatre was not exceptional: in the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were serf theatres on more than 170 estates, and armies of serfs were trained to man them. Far from being an eccentricity, they stood at the centre of Russian aristocratic life. Yet although serfdom would endure for some time, serf theatre did not last. Economic hardship in the wake of the 1812 war dealt the first blow, and by mid-century most country estates were empty or abandoned and their theatres dispersed. Many of the dancers were sold off: in 1806–7, A. L. Naryshkin, chief court steward and member of an old boyar family, folded his own serf theatre into the Imperial Theatres; Alexander Stolypin later sold his seventy-four-member group to the state, and others followed in a pattern that continued well into the 1830s. For the serfs, sale to the state theatres technically meant freedom, but in fact most serfs simply traded one master for another — like Prince Yusupov, the noblemen who owned serf theatres often also held important positions at court, and their authority remained largely intact. Indeed, Yusupov was succeeded in his position as director of the Imperial Theatres by Nikolai P. Sheremetev.

Despite its relatively short life, serf theatre cast a long shadow over ballet. For generations to come, dancers were generally serfs or children of serfs, orphans, or from other low backgrounds. They were “civilised” and “made European” at state expense: at the Imperial ballet school in St. Petersburg, dancing lessons took several hours a day and alternated with academic subjects and religious studies (in 1806 the authorities even built a small church next to the school). Students were ranked and uniformed according to merit, and perfect obedience was expected: visits from friends and family were strictly regulated, and the tsar and his authorities controlled almost every aspect of a performer’s life. Upon graduation, artists owed ten years of service to the state, which was free to deploy them as needed; even the most highly trained dancer could be assigned or transferred against his will to another profession. Like their serf forbears, dancers were subject to arbitrary incarceration, and sexual exploitation remained commonplace. Permission was required to leave the city, and marriages had to be approved from above.

Today it is easy to think of these Imperial dancers as repressed and unfree, and in many ways they were. But there was also a protective (if no less arbitrary) side to this paternalism: favoured dancers were rewarded with boxes of fancy chocolates, jewellery, and other expensive gifts, and although many were desperately poor, the authorities did on occasion grant loans and offer support. Some ballerinas married up, and others were richly kept, though still more were impoverished and perished forgotten and ill-fed. But whatever their fortune in the demimonde adjoining ballet, most dancers — like most peasants — accepted their position unconditionally, and their devotion to the tsar bordered on religious. Few thought to question authority, and even a glimpse of His Majesty, as one ballerina recalled, “was like being lifted to Paradise.” To this day Russian classical ballet bears the imprint of its roots: the way that Russian dancers submit to authority, their sense of duty, and the reverence and humility they bring to their tradition far surpass that of French or Italian dancers.

In 1801, the French-trained ballet master Charles-Louis Didelot (1767–1837) was appointed to direct the Imperial ballet in St. Petersburg. Didelot was an intense and quick-tempered man with steely eyes and a pockmarked face, noted for his sharp discipline and focused mind. He had been a modest success in the West, but in Russia he was an immediate sensation, and except for a brief interval he remained in the country for the rest of his life. His success was partly a matter of timing. The French Revolution of 1789 had terrified and alienated many aristocratic Russians, and Didelot was reassuringly old-fashioned. A student of Noverre, he had a solidly ancien régime artistic sensibility and trained his students on a strict diet of menuet à la reine. Eschewing fashionable polkas and waltzes, he railed against dancers who performed turns and high jumps (disparaging them as “steeplechasers”) or women who breached propriety by throwing their legs indecorously over their heads. His most famous ballet, Psyché et l’Amour (1809), was a rococco affair full of spectacular effects, including fifty real white doves outfitted in mini-corsets and attached to wires: they helped to fly Venus’s chariot into the clouds.

But as it turned out, Didelot was more than just a throwback to the ancien régime. He became close friends with Prince Alexander Shakhovskoi (1777–1846), an author and playwright who worked in various official capacities for the Imperial Theatres in the early decades of the century, and with Catterino Cavos (1775–1840), a Venetian-born composer and son of an Italian ballet master who was principal conductor of the Russian Opera for over thirty years, from 1806 until his death. Together Shakhovskoi, Cavos and Didelot stood at the forefront of an emerging movement to reorient Russian culture away from what Shakhovskoi called the “powder, embroidered coats and red heels from Paris” and to create a new kind of “national theatre”. “Even Russian bread,” he liked to say, “won’t grow in the foreign manner.”

This did not mean outright rejection of the West. Didelot never compromised his French training, and most of his early productions were imported directly from Paris. Cavos had been educated in Venice, and Shakhovskoi translated French vaudevilles and comic operas into Russian as well as writing his own. But it did mean pressing the forms of European art into a more Russian mould. Didelot invested his considerable talent in reinvigorating the school, which had stagnated since its founding. The idea was not just to produce a serviceable corps de ballet but to make Russian stars. Considering the expense of importing foreign celebrities, the Imperial authorities much appreciated this money-saving endeavour. Under Didelot’s leadership, the school grew and training for students (many of them former serfs) intensified, with dance classes lengthening from two hours to gruelling four-hour training sessions, Didelot presiding. Properly trained Russian dancers, it was hoped, would give French ballet a native pulse.

The year before Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, Didelot left the country and went back to western Europe. After Russia’s victory in the war, however, the Imperial authorities implored him to return. In his absence, the ballet had fallen into disarray, and as an enticement they doubled his salary and gave him a private carriage with coachman and an ample supply of firewood for the winter. Didelot was not, however, returning to the same place. The war with Napoleon had radically transformed Russian politics and society: in the fighting, the aristocracy — Russia’s traditional military elite — had been miserably divided and conflicted, whereas armies of peasants had rallied to die in defence of the homeland and Holy Rus. To many, the lesson seemed clear: the Frenchified court was weak and corroding the country from within. It was the people, not the privileged and service nobility, that represented the real Russia.

Even Alexander I, whose sympathies with Western culture had heretofore been the defining feature of his reign, was a changed man. The violence and destruction of the war — and especially the burning of Moscow — undid him, and he turned increasingly away from the West and toward Orthodox mysticism and an almost missionary militarism. This had consequences for Russian ballet: when the tsar returned exhausted but victorious from Paris, where his forces had finally occupied the city, he staged vast martial spectacles with powerful religious overtones celebrating the victory of Russia’s Orthodox armies over the French. The Russian ballet master Ivan Valberg — who had taken over many of Didelot’s duties during the war — obliged with works such as The Russians in Paris and The Genius of Russia, with Alexander bent over a crushed and repentant France.

At court, where fashion was always beholden to politics, the Europeanised elite hastily set out to “Russianise” themselves, as the grand duchess Ekaterina Pavlovna put it. They threw sarafan tunics over their customary silk and zealously donned headdresses from old Muscovy; they set aside French ballroom dances and performed the native pliaska instead. The fashion for folkways turned out to be a boon for dancers, many of whom had already begun to capitalise on their lowly roots by giving private lessons to the aristocracy — not in classical ballet but in the traditional folk dances of their ancestors. Those who did not already know these dances sought out Gypsies and peasants who did, and so acquired secondhand the authenticity deprived them at birth. Upon his return in 1816, Didelot did not miss a beat: he immediately implored the empress, “I need Russian peasants, all Holy Rus. Let them do their folk dances…. Your guests have become enough like Parisians; let them again feel that they are Russians.”

In the early 1820s Didelot mounted a series of ballets on Russian themes, including The Fire-bird (1822), from a Russian folktale, and The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1823), after a poem by Alexander Pushkin — both with music by Cavos. Didelot, however, could not read Russian, and in the program notes for The Prisoner of the Caucasus he apologised to his audience for working from an excerpted translation. Indeed, the ballet bore little relation to Pushkin’s famous work. Didelot moved the action from the 16th century back to a wild and mountainous ur-Slavic world with romanticised tribal folk sharpening weapons on rocks and cradling babies in jackal skins. He also added a happy ending. In Pushkin’s story the Circassian girl drowns, but in Didelot’s ballet a prince (another obligatory addition) wins her love and the couple are married; the wicked khan, so the libretto says, “willingly becomes a Russian subject and kneels before his sovereign,” no doubt a dutiful nod to recent Russian military expansion into the region.

If the ballet had a distinctly French feel, however, the lead roles were performed by Russians. The hero was danced by Nikolai Golts, who had been trained by Didelot and was one of the first great male Russian dancers; and the Circassian girl was Avdotia Istomina (1799–1848), also trained by Didelot and by the ballerina Evgenia Kolosova, a dancer known for her subtle rendition of folk dances. Istomina’s dark beauty and impassioned dancing, which (according to an admirer) “breathed of the East,” were widely celebrated and attracted the attention of prominent writers and artists, including the playwright Alexander Griboyedov and Pushkin himself.

Griboyedov and Pushkin had a curious and revealing relationship to ballet. They were both drawn to St. Petersburg’s glamorous court milieu and for a short time attended the ballet regularly, but each also despised the court’s glittering dissipation and lingering subservience to Western ways. Griboyedov’s comic play Woe from Wit, published the same year that Didelot presented Prisoner of the Caucasus, struck a sharp blow at Russia’s “sick craving for abroad” and amounted, as the critic Vissarion Belinsky later put it, to an “outpouring of bilious thunderous indignation at a rotten society of worthless people.” And although the drama was situated in Moscow, it broadly targeted the whole corrupt structure of autocratic rule — and was seen as among the first examples of a truly Russian theatre. Officially banned, manuscript copies nonetheless circulated widely. Pushkin greatly admired the work and later expressed his own misgivings about Russia’s western excesses in Eugene Onegin, in which he described ballet as an entrancing entertainment and feckless pastime, emblematic of the seductive and superficial world that made Onegin a dissolute fop.

But Istomina was different: Pushkin wrote fondly of the “soulful flight and free” of “My fair Russian Terpsichore” and made rough, urgent sketches of her pointed feet in ribboned ballet shoes. By the time she performed Prisoner of the Caucasus, he was in exile (for political sedition) and wrote longingly to his brother asking for news of “the Circassian girl Istomina, whom I once courted, like the Prisoner of the Caucasus.” Griboyedov also knew and admired Istomina and wrote his own verses honouring the dance, though his were addressed to the ballerina Ekaterina Teleshova, another of Didelot’s Russians. Adding to Istomina’s romantic aura, she became the cause of a double duel (another Parisian fashion) that took the life of an admirer and cost Griboyedov his left hand. Pushkin later planned to write about the dramatic events, but before he could do so he was himself killed in a duel.

With Didelot and Istomina the idea that French ballet might “make Russians European” was turned on its head. For the rest of the century a new theme would dominate: “make ballet Russian.” This would not be easy. Griboyedov and Pushkin counted among the founders of the Russian literary tradition, but their achievements could not be easily harnessed to ballet: Russian poetry danced by Russians to Cavos’s tunes with Didelot’s steps did not necessarily add up to Russian ballet. Didelot’s ballets had an exotic perfume, but they were still incontrovertibly French. There was no real merging of folk and balletic forms, and in his ballets Russian dances were more like exotic colour — similar to the national dances so popular in contemporary French and Italian Romantic ballet. Tellingly, when Didelot staged Russian folk dances, he often sought the advice of a renowned expert in the field (and personal teacher to the tsarevitch): the French ballet master Auguste Poirot.

Yet we should not underestimate the importance of Didelot in the development of Russian ballet. In this period, and for the first time, dancers and ballet masters were part of a lively intellectual milieu galvanised by the War of 1812 and the circumstances of their own lives to discover and invent new forms of art; imitating the West was no longer enough. The overlap between court and literary circles that inspired so much of Didelot’s work and made Istomina a source of erotic and vaguely nationalist and poetic inspiration was new. Classical ballet is a deeply conservative and insular art that resists change; the Russians, more French than the French, had made it more conservative than ever. But for a brief moment in the early 19th century, Didelot unlocked the doors of French ballet and let the “other”, Slavic Russians in, opening the way for a rush of literary and folk influences on the art. To be sure, his own choreography was limited, but we should remember just how far he had travelled. Even the mere fact of training and promoting Russian dancers represented a radical reorientation and new possibilities.

But the moment was lost. In December 1825 a group of reform-minded noblemen and intellectuals, many of them former officers who had served in the 1812 war and who (like Pushkin and Griboyedov) admired the West but despaired of Russia’s subservience to it, staged a coup in St. Petersburg. The new tsar, Nicholas I, rashly ordered the Imperial guns turned on them: some were killed, others tried and executed or exiled to Siberia for life. The Decembrists, as they were known, became martyrs and a symbol of the lost opportunities and severe repression that followed. In the wake of their revolt, Nicholas tightened the reins: censorship, restrictions on travel, arbitrary arrests, and establishment of the notorious Third Section (secret police) made Russia, as Alexander Herzen later recalled, a “nastier and more servile” place. The nascent intelligentsia retreated into private clubs and societies and circulated their work in clandestine “thick journals”. In a general shake-up of the Imperial Theatres, Shakhovskoi was fired and Didelot was incessantly harassed by petty autocratic officials until, in 1829, the old ballet master was finally arrested on trumped-up charges and resigned his position.

In the years that followed, the Russian court became an isolated and rigidly ritualised arena. Nicolas even treated court quadrilles as disciplinary manoeuvres: the baton was raised and the dancers stood poised in ready position, and when the dance ended they returned to their places and stood in alert readiness. In this restrictive context, ballet reverted to mindless imitation of the French example, and contact with wider literary and artistic movements was curtailed. Foreigners returned to prominence and Parisian Romantic ballet arrived in full force: Marie Taglioni spent five years in St. Petersburg, from 1837 to 1842, and danced countless performances of La Sylphide. Giselle entered the repertory too, and when Jules Perrot arrived he staged the ballet with Théophile Gautier’s muse, Carlotta Grisi. To many observers, however, there was something stale and humiliating about this return to imitation-French dances: one critic lamented that ballet was “no longer ours”, and Alphonse de Custine, who recoiled at Nicholas’s repressive “empire of fear”, saw very clearly that Taglioni, who was not at her best (“Alas! For Mademoiselle Taglioni! … What a fall for La Sylphide!”), was being paraded around the city like a French poodle. He was disgusted at the way that the Russians slavishly followed her with “footmen in handsome cockades and gold lace,” showering her with “the most preposterous praises I have ever seen.” It was, he reported incredulously, “like a journey to olden times: I could imagine myself at Versailles a century ago.”

In 1836 the writer Peter Chaadaev, who had served in the 1812 war and was sympathetic to the Decembrists, published his First Philosophical Letter, which, in the words of Herzen, was like a “shot that rang out in the dark night … one had to wake up.” Russia, Chaadaev wrote (echoing Griboyedov), had no viable tradition or ideas of her own, only barbarism, superstition and foreign domination. The official reaction was swift: Chaadaev was placed under house arrest, declared insane, and carefully watched by doctors in Nicholas’s employ. His work was nonetheless widely distributed underground and set off a complicated and anguished debate between Slavophiles, who insisted that the country must return to “the people” and an idealised pre-Petrine past, and Westernizers, resigned to the fact that Russia must absorb and build on the cultural heritage of the West — as Herzen put it, “We have nothing to go back to. The political life of Russia before Peter was ugly, poor and savage.”

But ballet, like the court itself, did not “wake up” and after 1848 its slumber only deepened. As west Europe erupted in revolution and its monarchies weakened to the point of collapse, Nicholas appeared vindicated. The West, as his supporters saw it, had turned away from the path of stability and absolute rule: only Russia seemed to have the strength and will to resist revolution and uphold Europe’s aristocratic and monarchical traditions — including classical ballet. That year the director of the Imperial Theatres wrote to the Russian consul general in Paris: “The present situation in Europe means artists can only be thinking of our theatres…. consequently their demands must be less excessive than in the past.” He was not wrong. Paris was unstable: in the wake of the violence of 1848, audiences stayed home, and an outbreak of cholera made matters worse. The Paris Opera was increasingly entrenched. It had barely deigned to offer a position to Jules Perrot, among the most talented ballet masters of his generation, and when the offer did finally come Perrot turned it down and took a position at Nicholas’s court instead. He married a Russian woman and stayed in St. Petersburg for the next eleven years, producing lavish and spectacular ballets in a grand and melodramatic French Romantic style.

This façade of stability, however, was about to crack. In 1856 Russia was humiliatingly defeated by France and Britain in the Crimean War, which finally unhinged Nicholas I and deeply undermined the country’s confidence. “On the surface,” as one critic put it, “there is glitter, beneath rot.” Part of the rot, it was widely perceived, was the result of serfdom, which was thought to be weakening the country from within. When Nicholas died a few years later, the more reform-minded Alexander II assumed the throne, and in 1861 he made a dramatic concession: he emancipated the serfs. This would take years to fully achieve and many serfs were left destitute in the process, but it was nonetheless a momentous change that inspired flights of optimism and unleashed a storm of debate and – when the reforms fell short – bitter recrimination. The foundation of autocratic rule had weakened from within and the opposition was galvanised. This was the “era of proclamations,” when relaxed censorship allowed radical political groups to speak out brazenly on the peasant question and printed pamphlets were jammed into mailboxes and stuffed into theatre programs. In 1862 a rash of mysterious fires rumoured to have been started by groups hoping to bring down the Imperial system burned in St. Petersburg, and four years later Alexander narrowly escaped the first of several assassination attempts.

In this tense political environment even classical ballet was forced out of its gilded cage. In 1863 the writer M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826–1889) launched a scathing attack on the art, which seemed to him to exemplify what he called, in another context, the “bovine indifference” of the Russian elite:

I love ballet for its constancy. New Governments rise up; new people appear on the scene; new facts arise; whole ways of life change; science and art follow these occurrences anxiously, adding to or sometimes changing their very compositions—only the ballet knows and hears nothing…. Ballet is fundamentally conservative, conservative to the point of self-oblivion.

Shchedrin worked closely with the poet Nikolai Nekrasov (who published his own verse on the contemptible state of ballet three years later) and with the writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828–1889), whose novel What Is to Be Done? — written from prison in 1863 — became a seminal text for political radicalism. These men were angered and disappointed by the limited scope of Alexander’s reforms and sympathetic to the “new men” of their time — men the novelist Ivan Turgenev branded as “nihilists” for their dark cynicism and eagerness to break violently with the past. In search of other paths and a new morality, they invested their political fervour in the people: not Gallicised and balletic country folk but what they liked to think of as real, gritty Russian peasants.

Painters, writers, dramatists, and musicians were also turning “back to the people” and attempting, in a variety of ways, to break with Russia’s Imperial and aristocratic heritage. In 1862 a group of Russian musicians including Mussorgsky, Cui, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Balakirev (a friend and follower of Chernyshevsky) established the Free Music School, which eschewed the rigour and rules of the European tradition and openly incorporated (and invented) Russian folk forms. As one of its leading supporters put it, the “hoop-skirts and tailcoats” of the past would finally have to face the “long Russian coats” of the new school. So it was with art: students at the Imperial Academy became increasingly dissatisfied with what they perceived as stodgy European training and an outmoded emphasis on antiquity and the old masters. In 1870 a group of self-described “Wanderers” broke away and dedicated themselves to a new realist art, socially and politically relevant. That year the painter Ilya Repin embarked on his trip down the Volga River, which resulted in The Volga Barge Haulers, a grim and starkly rendered depiction of the lives of the men he had met and come to know there. It was a momentous time: literature had Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and theatre was galvanised by Alexander Ostrovsky, a Muscovite who pioneered a sharply satirical and self-consciously realist and Russian dramatic art.

In a halfhearted effort to acknowledge the new directions in politics and art, the French ballet master Saint-Léon created The Little Humpbacked Horse in 1864, loosely based on a Russian fairy tale with music by Cesare Pugni (an Italian) and starring the Russian ballerina Marfa Muravieva. Costumed, we learn from the Russian critic André Levinson, in an “imitation Russian style” with tutu, satin shoes, and a Muscovite diadem, Muravieva danced a kamarinskaya on toe, accompanied by the bravura violinist Henryk Wieniawski with long black hair flying. Building to a crescendo, she ended (an admirer recalled) with “a broad sweep of one arm and a low bow from the waist, Russian style.” To fill out this going-to-the-people picture, Saint-Léon added numerous folk dances with plenty of knee squatting, and the ballet ended with a spectacular parade featuring Cossacks, Karelians, Tartars and Samoyeds. Audiences were thrilled; building on his success, Saint-Léon created The Golden Fish (1867), inspired by Pushkin’s poem.

Not everyone, however, was impressed. The Russian ballerina Ekaterina Vazem called The Little Humpbacked Horse a “propaganda weapon,” sardonically noting that it was made by a French choreographer to music by an Italian composer played by German musicians. The critic Sergei Nikolaevich Khudekov snidely dismissed Saint-Léon’s Russian dances as the manipulations of a “clever foreigner”. Shchedrin had the last word: he lashed out at Saint-Leon’s Golden Fish for its misty-eyed depiction of “a fairy-like population of peasants.” “Why do they dance? Because their fishing is going well, because their boat is ready; they dance because they are peasants, and that is what peasants in ballets must do.”

Shchedrin was only partly right. What he — like Saint-Léon and Didelot before him — did not realise was that ballet would not finally “wake up” or become Russian by going back to “the people” or by shaping itself to Russian folk tales or musical forms. Indeed, it was precisely ballet’s immobility and artifice, its foreignness and fundamental inability ever to be “real”, that would eventually make it a preeminently Russian classical art. Paradoxically, what Saltykov-Shchedrin saw as “self-oblivion” turned out to be ballet’s greatest asset: it was stuck, but that also meant that it marked a historical place and fiercely guarded the aristocratic principle that was its guiding force. Shchedrin wanted to throw ballet aside because it offended his desire for social and political justice, and we can understand the sentiment, but ballet in Russia would not be saved from “self-oblivion” by its critics — or Russia’s. To the contrary: the man who would pull ballet out of its complacency was an insider, a dancer and ballet master who had worn ballet’s movements and found beauty in them. He was not a Russian but a Frenchman and consummate courtier who spent his life in the enclave of the Imperial Theatres, an artist who would change ballet by making it more, not less, Imperial: Marius Petipa.

Marius Petipa (1818-1910)

Marius Petipa arrived in St. Petersburg from Paris in 1847. He did not come as a foreign star. In fact, his early career in the West had been undistinguished. Born in 1818 in Marseilles to a large family of itinerant performers (his father was a ballet master), he learned to dance and play the violin and spent his childhood touring Europe. The family performed in Belgium and in Bordeaux and Nantes, and in 1839 Petipa and his father embarked on an ambitious but financially disastrous theatrical stint in America. Subsequently he studied with Auguste Vestris in Paris, danced at the Comédie-Française, and spent several years in Madrid, where he mounted ballets on Spanish themes and became embroiled in a love tangle that eventually forced him to flee the country. By 1847 he was back in Paris, where his more successful brother, the dancer Lucien Petipa (who had danced the lead role in the premiere of Giselle), helped arrange positions for him and their father at the Russian Imperial Theatres.

Petipa thus came with a low profile: he was paid considerably less than most foreign dancers and had to work his way up the Imperial hierarchy. He lived in the shadow of Jules Perrot, his older and more illustrious compatriot and then chief ballet master. In Russia, Perrot took his craft and enlarged its frame, expanding the Romantic ballet to a scale befitting the Imperial capital. Esmeralda (inspired by Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris and first performed in London) grew from its original skimpy five scenes to a full-evening work in three acts, sumptuously staged; Eoline, ou la Dryade (1858) was four acts and five hours in length, unheard of in Paris or Milan, where ballets generally shared a program with opera and were more modest in length. Perrot’s fantastical ballets, which included lavish spectacular effects (ships sinking, fireworks exploding) and comic scenes, were supported by an enormous company of dancers and vast resources. A report commissioned by the tsar in the 1850s noted that the St. Petersburg troupe had 261 more dancers than the Paris Opera, and that ballet (not opera) was the theatre’s single most costly item. Perrot’s productions were also of a piece with the fairy-tale aesthetic established at the Imperial court, where comic opera and vaudeville were especially in demand, and balls were sumptuous affairs featuring men in gold spangled uniforms and (as Théophile Gautier reported) “Byzantine madonnas” draped in robes of gold and silver brocade with bare shoulders and glittering jewels. Halls were illuminated with thousands of candles producing “constellations of fire,” and amid this splendour, courtiers danced.

It was an ironic situation: in western Europe ballet was already in decline, but inside the protected walls of the Russian Imperial Theatres Perrot quietly handed Petipa the French Romantic tradition, however grandiose and enlarged. Petipa inherited the Danish tradition too, via the Swedish-born dancer and teacher Johansson, who was a student of Bournonville. Johansson was one of Russia’s most exacting and skilled dance teachers, known for his intricate, difficult combinations (he liked to lay his fiddle across his knee and pluck pizzicato to emphasise precision). There were others to learn from too, among them Felix Kschessinsky, a Pole famous for his Polish, Hungarian and Gypsy dances. Russia thus acted as a cultural incubator, and the Imperial Theatres gave Petipa the time and resources to fully absorb the teachings of these dancers and ballet masters. For over a decade before he produced anything significant of his own, he dutifully applied himself to learning his craft: dancing, teaching, mounting ballets, conducting rehearsals, and learning to make his way through the labyrinthine Imperial bureaucracy. He would draw on Perrot’s work in particular for years to come, restaging many of the ballet master’s dances and carefully preserving and building on this very French past.

Indeed, in Russia Petipa became more French than the French. Although he lived in St. Petersburg for more than fifty years, until his death in 1910, and married twice, both times to Russian dancers (with whom he had nine children), he held tight to his Catholic faith and never learned the local language. His pidgin Russian was a source of embarrassment as he grew older, but for most of his career he lived hermetically at court and conducted all of his business in French. No fool, Petipa knew that his studied ignorance was also a mark of prestige, and he carefully preserved and cultivated his ties to the French capital: whenever possible he spent summers there, and he was in close touch with his brother Lucien, who rose to the position of ballet master at the Paris Opera in 1860, and who sent ballet scenarios and kept Marius abreast of the latest fashions.

Petipa’s early Russian ballets were self-consciously Parisian except that, following Perrot, they were bigger and more opulent. His first important success came in 1862 with The Pharaoh’s Daughter, to music by the theatre’s resident ballet composer, Cesare Pugni. It had a libretto by Vernoy de Saint-Georges drawn from the novel Le roman de la Momie by Théophile Gautier, the very same team that twenty-one years earlier had produced the scenario for Giselle. The Pharaoh’s Daughter was a sprawling five-hour-long grand-opera-style ballet, packed with pageantry and special effects. There was a dance for eighteen couples with baskets of flowers balanced on their heads: on the final chord thirty-six children popped out of the flowers. There were camels, monkeys, and a lion, and water sprayed up from an onstage fountain (later productions featured a waterfall, electrically lit from the top and sides). The ballet had an exotic Egyptian setting, inspired perhaps by the building of the Suez Canal, and drew on a trove of Romantic themes. It included an opium dream, mummies come to life, a suicide, an underwater Nile ballet, plentiful balleticised national dances, and an apotheosis with a three-tiered display of Egyptian gods. It was a fantastically extravagant affair — everything Saltykov-Shchedrin (who wrote his invective the following year) hated about ballet. Petipa was rewarded with promotion to the coveted position of ballet master to the Imperial Theatres, a position he shared with his rival Saint-Léon until 1869, when he took sole charge.

In the decades that followed, Petipa settled in and absorbed the feel and scale of St. Petersburg. He was an avid courtier (“December first,” he noted in the corner of a mise-en-scène he was working on, “is the fiftieth birthday of the prince. Must leave my visiting card or sign my name in the book”) and he “vigilantly” watched, as one Russian ballerina disapprovingly noted, “the impression his ballets made on the Imperial personages and court dignitaries.” His approach was eminently practical: he carefully plotted his choreography at home with figurines “like chess pawns” arranged on a large table and made elaborate notes of the most successful arrangements using X’s and O’s and other symbols to represent the movements of his dancers. Petipa also spent hours tracing pictures from books and magazines that might help him arrive at the right look for his ballets and he meticulously recorded instructions for the visual effects he hoped to achieve. In one ballet, for example, he noted four lines of twelve dancers, each in different coloured skirts and underskirts that flipped and changed in a kaleidoscopic pattern as the dancers paraded forward in successive lines, switching places with military precision.

None of this constituted great choreography, and what we know of Petipa’s early ballets shows a capable artist producing ballets according to a well-established formula. (These were the ballets that so upset Bournonville when he visited.) But as time passed, a change crept in. We can see it in La Bayadère (1877), a typically exotic (in this case Indian-themed) ballet about a beautiful Hindu temple dancer with a cumbersome plot derived from past Parisian operas and ballets to serviceable music by Ludwig Minkus. It was a Franco-Russe mélange and starred the Russian dancers Ekaterina Vazem and Lev Ivanov, with old Nikolai Golts (of Didelot fame) in the role of the Great Brahmin. Johansson and Kschessinsky also took supporting roles. Yet this unwieldy Romantic extravaganza — in one sketch Petipa envisaged a procession with thirty-six entrances and more than two hundred dancers — also contained a pristine classical dance, “The Kingdom of the Shades,” which (later revised by Petipa and still performed today) has since become an emblem of Petipa’s emerging formal style.

“The Kingdom of the Shades” was inspired by Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Paradiso from The Divine Comedy, and even now we can see Doré’s wispy, angelic figures in Petipa’s dance. The pretext is a vision scene, conjured in the mind of the warrior Solor, who loves the beautiful bayadère; when she dies, he takes solace in an opium dream and finds her in an underworld inhabited by the shades of dead women. His dream begins as a single shade, in white tulle and draped in gauzy veils, steps onto an empty and brightly lit stage from the far upper-right corner. In profile, she takes an elegant, forward-reaching arabesque with her leg lifted high behind her, followed by a deep reclining back bend and two steps forward. She repeats the sequence again as another shade emerges from the wings and follows in synchrony, then another, and another. One by one, as if to infinity, a long chain of shades (sixty-four, to be precise, later reduced to thirty-two) wind their way single file across the stage and back, tracing a serpentine path and advancing steadily to make room for the next row. The visual crescendo builds with each repetition until the stage is full and serried ranks of dancers pose in perfect formation.

It was a spectacular image that could only have been made in St. Petersburg. Petipa’s dance evoked the sense of individual frailty and the fascination with dreams typical of Gautier, Perrot, and others — that single dancer stepping out alone — but he transposed the fleeting Romanticism of wilis and spirits and women in white into a far grander and more formal Russian idiom — not by adding lavish sets and costumes (although he did that too) but by expanding the entire choreographic structure. The steps were French, but their arrangement — amplified through repetition — echoed the vast architectural proportions of the Hermitage and the Peterhof gardens and recalled court balls. Gautier’s description of a polonaise at the Winter Palace comes to mind: in a torchlit procession led by the tsar, courtiers arrayed in strict lines wound their way through the state rooms in a repetitive dance that lasted for hours, “the slightest awkwardness of gesture, the least misstep, the tiniest movement out-of-time … sharply noticed.” In another key, the dance of the shades (like the polonaise itself) also recalled a simple line dance, a folk ritual elevated to a formal court art.

La Bayadère was a marker, but it was not until Petipa was nearly seventy, with some forty years’ experience on the Russian stage, that he made his real breakthrough. He might never have done so had events — and the music of Piotr Tchaikovsky — not intervened. In 1881 Alexander II, the last of Russia’s Westernising, reforming tsars, was assassinated. His son and successor, Alexander III, belonged to an entirely different breed. Uncultivated and sentimental, with a large, muscular build and an awkward appearance, he hated the “endless cotillion” and ceremonial life at court and preferred instead the simple domesticity of his more reclusive suburban residences. He was deeply religious and sympathised with various strains of Slavophile thought. He saw himself as a “true Russian” — naturally soulful and blissfully lacking the false manners and etiquette of the St. Petersburg elite. For the first time in nearly two centuries, Russian and not French became the lingua franca at court, and the tsar turned his sights and sympathies away from St. Petersburg and toward Moscow.

The look of Russia changed. Uniforms were redesigned — epaulettes and sabres were out, replaced by kaftans and jackboots with religious crosses added to flagstaffs. Alexander himself grew a long, bushy beard (and encouraged his soldiers to do likewise), and he lavished support on the Church: dozens of new, 17th-century-style churches dotted the countryside, and it is to Alexander that we owe the impressive and garish onion-domed Savior on the Blood Cathedral in St. Petersburg, an aggressively Muscovite addition to the city’s predominantly European architectural landscape. Similarly, for his coronation in Moscow Alexander ordered a ballet, and Petipa — ear to the ground — devised an allegory entitled Night and Day featuring national dances and ending with the performers joined together in a Russian round dance, circling “the most beautiful and stoutest woman, that is, Rus.”

In March 1882 Alexander ordered a radical reform of the Imperial Theatres. The problem, as he had come to see it, was their monopoly: for several decades all private theatrical venues had been controlled by the Imperial Theatres and were required to relinquish to them a substantial portion of their earnings. There had been complaints about the perceived injustice of this system before, but that year Alexander had been especially impressed by a scathing critique written by the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. The Imperial Theatres, Ostrovsky argued, served the court and (in Moscow) the rich merchants who were “too European in dress, habits and customs,” thus leaving the public bereft of the indigenous “elegant spectacles” and theatre they so craved. The balance, he said, was unfairly tipped toward Western forms, and he called for a new people’s theatre that would be “national, all-Russian.” Alexander scrawled his enthusiastic approval in the margins of the text and followed through with a decree abruptly ending the monopoly.

His closest advisers were alarmed. Control of theatrical life was intrinsic to the autocratic system, and they worried that these new freedoms might inflame dangerous passions that could then be turned to radical political purpose. (When Parisian theatres were “freed” in 1791, hadn’t they turned into hotbeds of revolutionary thinking?) But this was to miss the point: Alexander’s reforms were no liberalising gesture. To the contrary, they were conservative and nationalist, a deliberate attempt to redirect culture away from Europe and onto a stronger and more self-consciously Russian path, embodied in the tsar’s person and rule. They were a defence of autocracy, in the name of the people. That said — and here his critics were right — this kind of nationalist thinking also had an inherently radical potential: “the people” might end up undermining the autocratic system the tsar claimed to uphold on their behalf.

The consequences of Alexander’s reforms for ballet were far-reaching. At the Maryinsky, salaries for Russian dancers rose dramatically (thus closing the gap with the higher fees customarily paid to foreigners) but ticket prices doubled, putting even the cheapest seats out of range for working people. Meanwhile, theatrical activity at the suburban edges of the city exploded. If anything, the reforms thus accentuated the gap between “high” Imperial culture and the “low” popular and fairground traditions. A real effort was nonetheless made to redress the perceived imbalance between Eastern and Western influences at the Imperial Theatres: a committee was formed to review repertory, and more Russian composers, most notably Piotr Tchaikovsky, were hired to collaborate on new works. Most important of all, Alexander appointed Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1835–1909) to the directorship of the theatres.

Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1835–1909)

At first glance, Vsevolozhsky seems an unlikely choice. A cultivated aristocrat and ardent Francophile, intelligent and with a keen sense of humour, he had worked at the Russian consulate in The Hague and in Paris and his tastes were distinctly European. His small office in the Winter Palace was crammed with paintings and sculptures from French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch masters. “Everything around Vsevolozhsky,” the Ballets Russes artist Alexander Benois later recalled, “breathed that high-born taste, that parfait goût” of the French 18th century. Even his bows “were marked by a special elegance and even complexity,” and to him “dance was not something frivolous or absurd” but a necessary and supremely cultivated art.

Yet Vsevolozhsky was also a strong advocate of Russian art. This did not mean that he sent Petipa “to the people” to create folk dances or make ballets drawn on Russian tales. Instead, he pried the ballet master away from Minkus and the predictable rhythms of made-to-order ballet music and pushed him toward the far more complex and Russian voices of Tchaikovsky and (later) Alexander Glazunov. Tchaikovsky, whose prominence in Russian musical life was by then well established, shared Vsevolozhsky’s interest in ballet and was a willing collaborator. When he was a child his mother had taken him to see Giselle with Carlotta Grisi in the title role, and as a young man he had attended the theatre frequently. His brother, Modest, later recalled how Tchaikovsky enjoyed demonstrating the proper balletic form, teasing Modest by likening him to the undistinguished Russian ballerina Savrenskaya — and himself to the elegant Amalia Ferraris “because of the fluidity and classicism of his movements.”

In 1888 Vsevolozhsky proposed a new ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. He wrote to Tchaikovsky: “I thought I would write a libretto to Perrault’s La belle au bois dormant [The Sleeping Beauty]. I want to do the mise-en-scène in Louis XIV style,” and he went on to suggest that Tchaikovsky might consider “melodies in the spirit of Lully, Bach, Rameau …” Responding in French, Tchaikovsky enthusiastically agreed. Indeed, this was not his first ballet, but it was his first, and only, sustained collaboration with Petipa and Vsevolozhsky. And it was a genuine and engaged collaboration: Vsevolozhsky and Tchaikovsky’s graceful and beautifully mannered correspondence reveals the respect and warmth they felt for each other, and the three men met frequently to exchange ideas (always in French). Tchaikovsky also often appeared at Petipa’s home (the ballet master’s daughter later recalled the excitement of these visits) and played what he had written on the piano while Petipa shifted his papier-mâché figurines around a large round table.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Today, we like to think of The Sleeping Beauty as an elevated artistic landmark, but at the time of its premiere in 1890 many critics and observers saw it as a sellout to low popular taste. They were not entirely wrong. As a consequence of Alexander III’s theatrical reforms and the explosion of popular musical theatres in and around the city, audiences were treated to a whole new array of performances — not just Russian fare, but lavish mime and dance spectacles mounted by Italians with (as one critic complained) “masses” of performers and fantastic effects. These were Manzotti’s Excelsior dancers, and the spectacles were known as ballets-féeries for their fairy-tale magic and emphasis on the merveilleuse. In 1885 Virginia Zucchi set the trend when she danced at the Sans Souci in St. Petersburg in a lavish six-hour-long féerie entitled An Extraordinary Journey to the Moon (after Jules Verne), which had already had successful runs at music halls in Paris, London, and Moscow. Shortly thereafter, the Italian dancer and mime Enrico Cecchetti mounted his abridged version of Excelsior, which played for over two years in the Russian capital.

This “Italian invasion” touched a sensitive political nerve. The suburban theatres catered to a burgeoning urban populace created by industrialisation and the movement of peasants and workers, fleeing crushing rural poverty, into towns and cities. Ostrovsky enthusiastically welcomed the change and saw the ballet-féerie as an “appealing” people’s art that might “replace” outmoded court ballets with a more modern and accessible form. Others, however, were mortified and complained that the féerie represented a decadent and democratising Western culture. It was nothing more than “ballet as circus” and its performers moved like “machines” with “steel points” and “sharp” gestures. Their flexibility, one critic bristled, was an affront to “correctness and beauty of line” and unfit for a “self-respecting stage.”

Partly this was a matter of technique. Italian dancers had developed an arsenal of remarkable stunts such as multiple turns and extended balances on pointe, whereas dancers at the Imperial Theatres still favoured the softer and more fleeting movements of the French Romantic school. One Russian dancer later recalled his shock at seeing the new Italian style: Russian men, he noted, generally confined themselves to a restrained three or four pirouettes, whereas the Italians brashly spun out eight or nine. More alarming still, the Italians seemed to throw themselves from step to step with anarchic abandon. Their school, one critic glumly concluded, represented “a confused nihilism in choreography.” Tchaikovsky, Vsevolozhsky and Petipa stood firmly with the sceptics: Tchaikovsky had seen Excelsior in Naples and thought its subject “inexpressibly stupid,” and Petipa and the “old titans” (as they were referred to) at the Imperial Theatres, including Vsevolozhsky, were equally unimpressed. One dancer recalled seeing Petipa at a féerie slumped in the stalls with his head hung in despair.

Yet The Sleeping Beauty was itself a ballet-féerie — not a “sellout” but an astute artistic counterattack designed to beat the Italians at their own game while at the same time affirming the aristocratic heritage of the Russian ballet. It marked a sharp departure from the exotic and Romantic ballets of the past and had none of the charming village boys or ghostly, spirit-like ballerinas coveted on the St. Petersburg ballet stage. Nor was Beauty a slavish reprise of Perrault’s fairy tale, for although Perrault had originally written it as a tribute to Louis XIV’s “modern” France, it was Vsevolozhsky who introduced the lavish grand siècle setting. The ballet opens in the 16th century with the birth of a young princess who is cursed by an evil fairy and condemned to death upon her coming of age. The good (Lilac) fairy, however, softens the sentence and when the princess pricks her finger on a spindle the entire French court falls into a deep sleep, only to be awakened one hundred years later to the glorious reign of the Sun King. As a story, it was thin (one disgruntled critic complained, “They dance, they fall asleep, they dance again”), but that was the point: The Sleeping Beauty was not a narrative pantomime ballet in the old sense at all. It was about the court and its formal ceremonies — a royal birth and coming of age, a wedding and celebration. It was a sympathetic ritual reenactment of the courtly principles of classical ballet and Imperial Russia alike.

Petipa took seriously the 17th century setting: he studied pictures of the Sun King and made careful notes about Apollo and the “fairies with long trains, as drawn on the about old court dances and pored over Perrault’s works, carefully cutting out and saving illustrations. Vsevolozhsky spared no cost in the sets and costumes (the ballet absorbed more than a quarter of the 1890 annual production budget for the Imperial Theatres) and brightly coloured silk, velvet, gold and silver embroidery, brocade, furs, and plumes were all in abundant display, giving the production a vibrant, candy-coated appeal. This impressive pomp and pageantry was never stuffy or bombastic, and the ballet had many entertaining fairy tale characters drawn from other Perrault stories, such as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and Puss-in-Boots, whose whimsical dances lightened the last act. The apotheosis, however, struck a high note: against a backdrop of Versailles with terraces, fountains, and the grande pièce d’eau, audiences were given a vision of “Apollo in the costume of Louis XIV lit by the sun and surrounded by fairies.” The ballet ended triumphantly with a musical quotation from the French popular tune celebrating an earlier French king, “Vive Henri IV!”

Just as the fairies in the prologue endowed the baby princess with gifts of beauty, wit, grace, dance, song, and music, so The Sleeping Beauty civilised and refined the ballet-féerie, bringing it up to meet the elevated standards of a classical art. Tchaikovsky’s music set the tone, and its sophisticated, graceful classicism and eloquent Russian sweep presented Petipa with unprecedented choreographic challenges. Many critics found the music too operatic, and the dancers complained bitterly that it was difficult to move to. Accustomed to the predicable rhythms and simple, programmatic structure of Pugni and Minkus, Petipa pressed himself — and his dancers — to find newly suitable movements. Ironically, when searching for material he drew precisely on the Italian techniques he had so lamented. Indeed, the title role was performed by the Milanese dancer Carlotta Brianza (a veteran Excelsior performer), and Enrico Cecchetti was cast as the evil fairy Carabosse and in the difficult Bluebird Variation.

Petipa, however, did more than just repeat the tricks he learned from these Italians. He had a concrete, technical mind — he was interested in the mechanics of the steps and readily grasped the Italian innovations, particularly in pointe work — but he also had a deep appreciation of the architecture and physics of ballet, and he knew, or learned, how to refine and discipline their bombast and enthusiasm to give them a depth and dimension they lacked hitherto. In the Rose Adagio, for example, in which the princess is courted by four princes hoping to win her hand in marriage, the ballerina must balance on one leg as each of her suitors takes her hand and then leaves her to make way for the next. This kind of balance, in which the ballerina is left standing perilously alone on a single pointe, was a typical Italian stunt. But Petipa transformed it into a poetic metaphor. Sustained by the lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s music, the ballerina’s balance represents her independence and strength of character: it was no longer a trick but a test of free will.

So it was with the charming solo dances for each of the six fairies in the ballet’s prologue. These dances are all perfectly constructed models of classical principles. Again, Petipa did not shy away from virtuosity — the dances are full of difficult jumps on pointe, multiple turns, and fast footwork — but he tamed these bravura steps, ordered them, and pinned them into elegant, architectonic, and musically disciplined phrases. They look like scintillating aphorisms, the dance equivalent of La Bruyère’s sharp-tongued maxims or the conversational wit of les précieuses. Each dance works on many levels: it traces a symmetrical path across the floor (recalling Feuillet) with clear lines and sharp diagonals, for example, and these same lines and diagonals are then reflected and reproduced in the geometry of the steps themselves. But it was not just the construction of the dances that was so impressive; it was the way that dancers moved to Tchaikovsky’s music. It is difficult today to imagine just how different these dances must have been to perform. Tchaikovsky’s music brought out a whole new range and tone colour in the human body, a nuance and subtlety that Minkus or Pugni could never inspire.

Somebody has put together an interesting compilation of the Lilac Fairy solo with five different ballerinas: Eve Grinsztajn and Marie-Agnès Gillot from Paris Opera Ballet; Maria Allash and Nina Speranskaya from the Bolshoi and Daria Vasnetsova from Mariinsky (now with Finnish National Ballet). It would have been far more fascinating if the compilation also included an American, British, Italian and Danish ballerina as well. That would have been quite an insight into national variations of the ballet language. While the language and technique of ballet appear universal, the national ballet schools are quite distinct. The differences are not merely aesthetic (and noticeable in this compilation), they also feel different to dancers, and moving this way instead of that could make a dancer, for a moment, into a different kind of person. There are some hilarious YouTube videos of British dancers trying to learn the Bournonville method with Danish ballet masters. The experience is not funny at all to the dancers, I’m sure!

Even today’s most skilled performers find Petipa’s fairy variations a test of classical precision: the slightest false move or cheat — a leg straying off centre or a step out of line — immediately shows and throws the whole dance into disarray, as if a poem had been scanned poorly or a column in a Greek temple carelessly distorted. Performing these dances well is a matter of technical acuity and cast-iron discipline but also of style: a dancer cannot plausibly get through them without a modicum of charm. The steps and music — not to mention the luxurious costumes — make dancers move like courtiers, with chest open and a light, high centre of gravity. No acting was necessary: Beauty had very little “he said, she said” pantomime, and the mime and dance sequences were not musically distinct or set apart, as they had been customarily. The gestures and the dances flowed together seamlessly, and Petipa and Tchaikovsky thus quietly returned ballet to one of its original premises: mime and dance were a natural extension of the noble comportment that Russian courtiers had been practising and perfecting for nearly two centuries. They meshed so beautifully because they came from a single source, just as they had in the grand siècle: court etiquette.

Audiences, or at least critics, were disoriented: Beauty did not fit into any of the old categories, and many saw it as little more than an empty parade of “too luxurious” sets and costumes. “A ballet, as we understand it?” one indignantly squealed. “No! It is the complete decline of choreographic art!” If there was a reference point, it lay in the decorative rather than the performing arts. Beauty bore a striking resemblance to Fabergé’s exquisitely rendered objets de luxe. These ornamental pieces, including the famous Fabergé eggs, were enormously sought after by the tsar and the Russian elite at the time. Their superior craftsmanship, hyper-refinement, and meticulous, detailed re-creation of a world-in-a-shell had an intense appeal for an elite increasingly in retreat from the social and political problems facing their country. Fabergé reproduced the court in miniature; Beauty put it on the stage. The similarities were not lost on a younger generation of artists, including several who would later go on to create the Ballets Russes. They rightly saw that sealed within The Sleeping Beauty lay a whole way of life and “world of art.”

The Sleeping Beauty was thus the first truly Russian ballet. It was an impressive act of cultural absorption: this was no longer Russians imitating the French but instead a pitch-perfect summation of the rules and forms that had shaped the Russian court since Peter the Great. With Beauty, Petipa found a way to take out the seams of French ballet, to expand its technique and expressivity while paradoxically reinforcing its strict formal rules and proportions. And if the ballet’s grand scale seemed to some a capitulation to féerie and spectacle, it could also be read as an exaltation of the dignity and noble ideals of an aristocratic art. But Beauty also showed that high court ballet could meet popular theatre and assimilate that and the Italian techniques too, folding them both into a newly Russian style of dance. It is no accident that the ballet flowed from the imagination of a great Russian composer working in conjunction with a Francophile St. Petersburger and a Russified Frenchman, and that its cast was led by Italians with Russians filling the ranks.

The key to the ballet’s enduring appeal, however, was Tchaikovsky. It is a point worth emphasising: Tchaikovsky was the first composer of real stature to see ballet as a substantial art, and his music lifted dance onto a new plane. Before Tchaikovsky, music for ballet had been tied to dance forms and rhythms, and (later) to programmatic music or vaudeville tunes designed to illustrate and narrate pantomimed action. Well into the 19th century ballet composers across Europe had produced lovely and serviceable ballet scores, from Adolphe Adam’s Giselle and Léo Delibes’s Sylvia (a ballet Tchaikovsky himself greatly admired) in Paris to the melodic dances of the “big three” in St. Petersburg: Riccardo Drigo, Pugni (both Italians), and Ludwig Minkus (who was Austrian). However, these composers tended to follow rather than lead, and their music enhanced and illustrated but rarely challenged — much less upset — the way that dancers moved.

Not so with Tchaikovsky. It was not merely that Sleeping Beauty was a powerful symphonic score that stood on its own merits, without Petipa’s dances. What mattered was the way the music worked on the human body and spirit. Even today, Tchaikovsky’s music pushes dancers to move with a fullness and subtly that few other composers then or since have inspired. It is no accident that Tchaikovsky’s music was initially perceived by some as too operatic or big or difficult for the public, and especially the dancers, to fathom. Human bodies did not — never had — moved that way before. And yet the change was also perfectly natural, scaled to St. Petersburg and their own lives.

Petipa became a great choreographer because of Tchaikovsky, and he knew it: his memoirs pay touching tribute to the composer and he was well aware of the momentous opportunity Vsevolozhsky had afforded him. Tchaikovsky was pleased too, and Modest recalled the composer’s delight with “the miracles of elegance, luxury, originality in the costumes and scenery, and with the inexhaustible grace and variety of Petipa’s fantasy.” And if Alexander III failed to appreciate the ballet’s significance, commenting drily that it seemed to him “very nice,” the public was enchanted: The Sleeping Beauty was performed more than twenty times in 1890–91, accounting for more than half of the ballet performances that season. Modest wrote to the composer: “Your ballet has become a kind of obsession…. people have ceased saying to each other ‘How are you?’ Instead, they ask, ‘Have you seen The Sleeping Beauty?’”

The following year, the same team — Vsevolozhsky, Petipa, and Tchaikovsky — began work on another ballet-féerie, based this time on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Nutcracker. Designed as an entertaining afterpiece to Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, it was to be a short, two-act affair. The Nutcracker was set in France during the Directory — the conservative reaction to the French Revolution with its notorious sartorial excesses and dandified aristocrats — but it was also a fond depiction, as one observer later recalled, of Christmas à la Russe drawn straight from “Russian children’s memories.” It sketched familiar drawing-room rituals and featured a sparkling decorated tree, delicious German candies, brave toy soldiers, and, as the scenario put it, a scrumptious “enchanted palace from the land of confectionery sweets.” There was a frosty, St. Petersburg–like snow scene spectacularly lit with electric light and a waltz of gilt sweetmeats (today’s flowers). In keeping with the precedent set by The Sleeping Beauty, the lead role of the Sugar Plum Fairy was danced by an Italian ballerina, Antonietta dell’Era, and the cast numbered over two hundred, including a platoon of students from the School of the Regiment of Finnish Guards (they played the mice).

Soon after the ballet went into rehearsal, however, Petipa fell ill and was forced to turn over his duties to his second-in-command, the ballet master Lev Ivanov. The end result was a patchwork of dances, probably mostly by Ivanov with additional contributions from the dancer Alexander Shiryaev. When the ballet premiered in 1892 prominent critics dismissed it as just another féerie, calling it “an insult” to the Imperial Theatres and “death for the company.” And indeed — ironically, in view of its iconic status today — the ballet had only limited public appeal and soon fell from the repertory.

Lev Ivanovich Ivanov (1834-1901)

The snow scene, however, was highly praised, and Ivanov’s extant sketches for this windblown dance open a small window onto his often forgotten talent. Dancers were flung together in complicated formations that then fractured and dissolved into new and equally intricate designs: stars and Russian round dances, zigzags, and a large rotating Orthodox cross with a smaller circle, like a bejewelled ornament, around its centre and rotating in the opposite direction. This dance was not like Petipa at all: the symmetries were there, but the formations were more tenuous and airy, less formal and ceremonial. They had an impressionistic urgency and spontaneity that never would have flowed from the French ballet master’s more controlled palette, even as a description of snow.

Lev Ivanov was different: he was the first significant Russian choreographer to emerge from the Imperial Theatres. Like so many dancers in Russia, he had modest social origins and had passed through a foundling home before his mother (who was probably Georgian) reclaimed him, and although the family circumstances improved, he was sent at age eleven to board at the Imperial Theatre School. He graduated into the ballet company in 1852 and immediately fell under the influence, and shadow, of Marius Petipa. After Petipa was promoted to the rank of ballet master, Ivanov took over his position as first dancer of mime and character dance and performed original roles in many of Petipa’s ballets, including the lead male in La Bayadère. Some twenty years later, Ivanov was promoted to régisseur and then second ballet master (still under Petipa), where he remained until his death in 1901.

A servant of the state and pure product of the Imperial Theatres and their school, Ivanov had been brought up to treat his foreign and aristocratic superiors with obedience and respect. He lacked Petipa’s confidence and highly placed connections and thought of himself as “a good soldier”: he liked to wear a staff uniform, and in his short autobiography he railed indignantly against dancers who would “sin against the service, against art and even against your self-worth.” Yet Ivanov was also dreamy and introspective and could seem “undisciplined and moody,” as the dancer Tamara Karsavina later recalled. Exceptionally musical, he could often be found in a studio at the keyboard improvising, so engrossed that he sometimes failed to notice the dancers expectantly awaiting his instruction. He was entirely self-taught: the authorities had designated him to dance, and he never received formal musical training. He could not even read music, although he had the kind of memory that enabled him to reproduce whole compositions upon a single hearing.

Ivanov’s fellow Russian dancers had a special sympathy for him — he was more like them than Petipa ever had been; he spoke their language and had none of the aloof and arrogant manners typical of the elite. And if Petipa always had one foot in Paris, it is significant that Ivanov never left his native Russia and was often dispatched to mount dances in Moscow or for the military encampments at Krasnoe Selo — where the royal box, in keeping with the tsar’s Russianizing tastes, was shaped like a peasant cottage. All of this gave him a uniquely Russian perspective, and although Ivanov was fully versed in the technique and style of west European ballet, his dances also had, as one observer memorably put it, “periodic undercurrents of Slavic melancholy and introspection.”

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Swan Lake, perhaps the most imperfect but powerful of all Russian ballets. The version we know today derives from the production choreographed by Petipa and Ivanov to Tchaikovsky’s music and premiered in St. Petersburg in 1895. But Swan Lake also had another, earlier history. Tchaikovsky had originally been commissioned to compose the score in Moscow in the mid-1870s by one Vladimir Begichev, who was in charge of repertory at the city’s Bolshoi Theatre. Begichev’s wife ran an influential Moscow literary salon frequented by Tchaikovsky, who also tutored the couple’s son in music. Discussions at their home and at Ostrovsky’s Artists’ Circle, another literary and artistic club founded in the 1860s, had already inspired a new, self-consciously Russian ballet entitled The Fern based on a folktale recorded by Gogol: Moscow’s back-to-the-people version of Saint-Léon’s Humpbacked Horse, but apparently undistinguished.

We don’t know who wrote the libretto for Swan Lake, although it may have been Begichev and it was probably drawn from German folk and fairy-tale sources and perhaps influenced by Wagner’s Lohengrin. But the ballet also had roots in Tchaikovsky’s family life: some years earlier he had composed music for a children’s ballet about “The Lake of Swans”, which he and his extended family liked to perform in “house performances” later warmly remembered by his niece and nephew and featuring large wooden rocking swans. It was a fitting backdrop for a new Russian ballet recalling, however faintly, the domestic and estate settings of old serf ballets. The Moscow production had choreography by Julius Reisinger, a second-rate ballet master imported from Europe, but the lead role was not performed (as was now customary in St. Petersburg) by a foreign star: Odette was first danced by the ballerina Pelagia Karpakova and then by Anna Sobeshchanskaya.

This Moscow Swan Lake, moreover, bore only a passing resemblance to Petipa and Ivanov’s later St. Petersburg production. The outline of the ballet is familiar, but the Moscow original was more complicated: dark, violent, and tragic. Steeped in Romanticism, the ballet tells the story of a beautiful girl, Odette, trapped in the form of a swan. Tormented and pursued by an evil stepmother in the guise of an owl and demon sorcerer, she lives with a flock of similarly bewitched young maidens in a lake of tears. By day they are swans but by night they are set free to dance in the nearby ruins. Only marriage can break the spell that binds Odette to her watery fate, but when Prince Siegfried falls in love with her, the stepmother tricks him: an impostor in black seduces the prince, who swears his undying devotion to this glamorous fake, thus betraying the real Odette and dooming her to eternal captivity. Realising his mistake, Siegfried begs her forgiveness but — and this is the crux of the difference from later productions — it is too late. A crashing storm and terrible flood signal doom, with great undulating (canvas) waves and “an unimaginable din and uproar” that resembled “the explosion of a powder magazine” (and here a strong whiff of gunpowder filled the theatre). In desperation the prince tears off Odette’s crown, which is her only protection from the evil owl, and, consumed in guilt and grief, the erstwhile lovers are swept into the waters and drowned. There is no redemptive apotheosis, as there later would be, but instead a vision of a cruel and indifferent fate: the lovers perish and the moon shines through the clouds “and on the calm lake appears a band of white swans.”

This ballet had its premiere in 1877 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. The music was well received (although some grumbled it was too lush and operatic and thus ill-suited for ballet), but the choreography was roundly panned and went through several versions and many hands before the ballet was finally retired from the repertory in 1883, a victim of drastic cutbacks in the theatre’s budget. It disappeared for nearly ten years. Indeed, Tchaikovsky never saw it again: he and Vsevolozhsky had discussed a revival, but in 1893, before it could be produced, the composer died unexpectedly. The following year Lev Ivanov fashioned brand-new choreography for the second lakeside act for a memorial concert in St. Petersburg produced by Vsevolozhsky in honour of Tchaikovsky. Plans for a new production of the entire work proceeded, and Vsevolozhsky wrote to Modest asking him to work on a new libretto: “I hope you will succeed in avoiding the flood of the last act. It is trite and would go badly on our stage.”

Thus began a series of far-reaching revisions. Modest kept the flood but modified the ending, introducing a melodramatic double suicide: Odette throws herself into the lake and Siegfried stabs himself. In subsequent revisions things got softer and sweeter. Vsevolozhsky and Petipa excised the storm and flood and — building on Modest’s ending — had the lovers jump into the lake together and capped the ballet with the now-familiar heavenly apotheosis: “in the clouds, seated on huge swans, appear Siegfried and Odette.” The music was reworked by the Italian composer Riccardo Drigo (he had conducted the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty), who was asked to alter and shorten the score: as the scholar Roland John Wiley has shown, he lightened the orchestration, cut certain passages and added others, and (perhaps inadvertently) dismantled the tonal structure of Tchaikovsky’s original, giving the ballet an easier and less discordant feel. The music for the storm scene was simply deleted. The choreography was no less cobbled: Petipa, whose poor health had been exacerbated by the death of his daughter and other family difficulties, took responsibility for the court scenes but delegated the more lyrical and introspective lakeside dances to his Russian colleague Ivanov. This division of labour, however, turned out to be fortuitous: the enduring success of the ballet owes much to the tension between Petipa and Ivanov’s contrasting choreographic styles.

Consider Ivanov’s dances for the moonlit lakeside scene when the swans first appear as women, freed by the night and led by Odette, whose position is marked by her bejewelled crown. Siegfried and Odette meet; she tells her story and they confront the threatening sorcerer von Rothbart. The floor then clears for the entrance of the swans. Recalling Petipa’s shades in La Bayadère, they come one by one, single file, from the upstage corner in a series of simple repetitive steps and weave a serpentine pattern until they are ranked across the stage in straight, symmetrical lines. From this moment, however, a different mood takes hold: Ivanov sends the swans into a series of sculptural patterns that carve through the space, break apart, and recombine. The vocabulary is simple and clear — no more than a few plain-verse steps — with none of the wit or decorative embellishments that might draw the eye to a particular dancer.

This scene is often held up as the greatest possible achievement for a corps de ballet: properly performed, the dancers seem to move as one, and audiences today still marvel at how “together” they are. It is often assumed, moreover, that they are so together because each dancer has been trained meticulously to calibrate her movements to those of her neighbour. But this is not really how it works. Ivanov’s swans are not an assembly line or human machine, nor even a closely integrated community: they are an ensemble created by music. His steps do not so much fit the music as allow a dancer to find the phrase and sustain it in movement, making her way into the sound rather than moving smoothly across its surface. The unity is not “out” to one’s neighbours, but paradoxically a turning “in” and away; it is a togetherness based on musical and physical introspection, the polar opposite of show or ceremony. This is why the dance has such a silent, self-reflective feel.

It is not that the stage is quiet or the choreography sparse: Ivanov’s initial twenty-four swans are soon joined by twelve cygnets (children, usually left out of today’s productions) and by soloists until as many as forty dancers fill the stage. Yet no matter the crowds and the choreography’s increasing demands and complexity, the dancers never break order or rank; nor do they lose their discipline and inner focus. Moreover, they never lose their spatial and physical — or musical — relationship to Odette, their queen. They are her likeness, and their movements and patterns mirror and reflect her own: as they shadow her, they become an outward manifestation of her inner life.

This is even true in the pas de deux. Today we often think of this dance as a love story, but in 1895 it was more of a first-person soliloquy: Odette’s story. At the beginning of the scene Odette relates her sad tale in mime; she then repeats it here, abstracted in movement, in her dance with Prince Siegfried. This pas de deux was not an impassioned Romeo-and-Juliet-style duet — in fact, it was not a pas de deux at all, but instead a ménage à trios: Siegfried was originally performed by Pavel Gerdt, who was apparently too old to manage the partnering alone, so Benno (Siegfried’s friend) danced with Odette too. Any love interest was thus diluted: Siegfried and Benno were there to lift and support Odette and to allow her feelings to fully emerge. This was a kind of love, to be sure, but more courtly than romantic, an idealisation of woman rather than of feelings.

The dance begins as Odette descends gracefully to the ground in an arpeggio of movement (to a delicate harp cadenza), her body folded over on itself and her face hidden beneath her long, wing-like arms. As the first notes of the violin solo begin, her partner lifts her arm and literally unfolds her body as she rises up to full pointe. As she moves, he seems to disappear: it is just her and the long legato phrases of the violin. If audiences experience this dance as love, it is the harmony between Odette and the music, not her relationship with Siegfried, that inspires the feeling. Fittingly, the dance ends not in embrace but instead with Odette plunged into a deep supported arabesque or fallen with arms folded over on herself, head down, and the corps de ballet arrayed behind her, similarly draped.

Even as the dance opens out again — with solos, the arm-plaited “four little swans”, and a rushing coda — Odette’s self-absorption intensifies. No matter how bravura the demands (and there are some very difficult passages), the steps are designed as a kind of inverse showing off: small, quick movements requiring steely discipline and restraint — steps that force a ballerina to pull into herself and the music, rather than flashing out to the audience. The ballerina role was danced by the Italian Pierina Legnani, whose thick legs and fluid, strong technique — not to mention the ropes of pearls she liked to wear over her costume — made her an unlikely interpreter for Ivanov’s pure and lucid choreography. But in fact her impressive range and flexibility and (as many observers put it) the “plastique” of her dancing were crucial to the ballet’s success. As one critic noted: “It was as if Legnani were actually experiencing these moments, filled with poetic melancholy.”

The contrast between Ivanov’s “white” lakeside scenes and Petipa’s own architectonic and fiercely difficult dances for the court scenes could not have been sharper (it is Petipa’s black swan who executes the famous thirty-two fouettés — another Italian trick). It was a difference of style but also of ideas. In Petipa’s lexicon the individual is ennobled through fine taste and eloquence, grace and manners; the flamboyant, black Odile appears evil because she corrupts classical technique with her stylishly exaggerated bravura and false eloquence. Her movements are too skilled and alluring, lacking discernment and bordering on crass. Petipa’s choreography enshrined hierarchy and order, refinement and elegance — not as a set of repressive or stifling rules but as a necessary condition for beauty and art. Ivanov submitted to this aesthetic but also undercut it: there was a solvent in his dances, a yearning to break patterns and discard ornament in favour of a simpler grammar that might, in its most concentrated and lyrical forms, capture something more intimate and interior. He was interested in the inner sanctuaries — the private Russian chambers — of Petipa’s grand and marble-faced aesthetic.

Swan Lake had no successor: it stood alone in the repertory, not only for what it was but for where it came from. It was a product of Moscow and St. Petersburg, of the 1870s and the 1890s. Its fractured history and truncated, rearranged text, choreographed in fits and starts by Ivanov and Petipa after Tchaikovsky’s death, captures something of the competing forces and extraordinary invention shaping ballet at the time. Swan Lake, moreover, was no féerie but instead a full-blown Romantic tragedy, even in its gentler St. Petersburg form. It was not Petipa’s greatest work; that distinction rests firmly with The Sleeping Beauty. But if Beauty summoned forth an idealised classical and courtly past and was itself an exemplary monument to Imperial style, Ivanov’s lakeside dances in Swan Lake conjured the possibility of a perfect future in which love exists out of time and dancers are joined in a pure, plastic, and musical art. Together these two ballets stand as pillars marking ballet’s place as an Imperial Russian art.

By century’s end, however, the Russian moment in ballet was over. Petipa and Ivanov’s generation passed abruptly from the scene. In 1899 Vsevolozhsky left the Imperial Theatres to take up a position at the Hermitage Theatre, and Petipa went with him. Petipa was thus withdrawn deeper into the court, his ballets performed in ever-smaller venues for a restricted and elite audience. The Imperial Theatres, by contrast, turned increasingly toward Moscow: Vsevolozhsky was replaced briefly by the thoughtful but politically inept Prince Volkonsky (grandson of the Decembrist), whose efforts to discipline the extravagant behaviour of the tsar’s former lover, the ballerina Matilda Kschessinska, cost him his job; and then by V. A. Teliakovsky, a Muscovite and military man who cared little for Petipa and worked instead to promote a new generation of self-consciously Russian artists. Petipa lasted at the Hermitage for a few years but was finally forced into retirement in 1903. His ballets continued to be mounted at the Maryinsky, but he himself was rudely sidelined and those in charge treated him with thinly veiled contempt.

Distraught and frustrated, Petipa retired to the Crimea and wrote his autobiography, an exercise that served him poorly. He was too disenchanted to reflect on his life, and instead documented his rage — rage at the fraying of the social order and the decline of proper manners, rage at the new generation’s rampant and careless disregard for the past (“I’m not quite yet dead, M. Teliakovsky!”), and at the mangled state of his own dances. He dedicated the book to Vsevolozhsky. It was translated from the French and published in St. Petersburg in 1906, but by then Petipa’s closest colleagues were gone: Ivanov had died in 1901 and Johansson in 1903, Vsevolozhsky would go in 1909, and Legnani had long since shifted her sights back to western Europe. Petipa himself died in 1910, and an official at the Imperial Theatres stiffly recorded the event: “The maître de ballet Petipa died on July 1st/13th, 1910, in the town of Gurzuf, and I have therefore removed his name from the list of directors.”

Petipa’s legacy, however, was enormous. His early ballets were largely forgotten, but the later years of his reign at the Imperial Theatres saw the creation of nearly all of the ballets that would form the base of the classical tradition for the century to come. Not just La Bayadère and The Sleeping Beauty and — with Ivanov — The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, but also Giselle, which was rechoreographed by Petipa in the 1880s (in the version from which most modern productions derive), Paquita and Le Corsaire (both from earlier French ballets), Don Quixote, and perhaps most significantly Raymonda (1898) to gorgeously Russian-inflected music by Glazunov, which contained a wealth of jewel-like dances that choreographers would mine well into the 20th century. Elevated to mythic status, these ballets — and none more than The Sleeping Beauty — would become the root and source of classical ballet not just in Russia but also in France, Italy, and – especially — America and Britain.

Under Petipa’s stewardship, the entire axis of classical ballet had shifted. For two centuries, the art form had been quintessentially French. No more: from this point forth, classical ballet would be Russian. It is often said, rather flatly, that Russian ballet was a mix of French, Scandinavian (through the teacher Johansson), and Italian sources — that Russia, through Petipa, absorbed all of these and made them her own. This is certainly true; but what really changed ballet was the way it became entwined with Imperial Russia herself. Serfdom and autocracy, St. Petersburg and the prestige of foreign culture, hierarchy, order, aristocratic ideals and their ongoing tension with more eastern folk forms: all of these things ran into ballet and made it a quintessentially Russian art. Moreover, because classical ballet sat at the intersection of Russia and the West, it took on an unprecedented symbolic importance: to this day, ballet matters more in Russia than it ever has elsewhere, before or since.

Marius Petipa was Russia’s last foreign ballet master, Lev Ivanov its first native voice. In their wake came a new — and newly confident — generation of Russian dancers and ballet masters, including Alexander Gorsky and Agrippina Vaganova; Mikhail Fokine, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky, all of whom graduated from the Imperial Theatre School at or near the turn of the century. These dancers did not shy from authority: Gorsky took charge of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and Fokine would eventually assume the mantle of the St. Petersburg company. Henceforth ballet’s greatest stars would be Russian.

But this new Russian generation faced a daunting challenge: classical ballet was in Russian hands, but Russia itself was on the brink of collapse. Everything that had made ballet important since Peter the Great was about to come to a violent end. These dancers had been trained under the old order: Imperial Russia was all they knew. Many had worked with Petipa and Ivanov, performed at the Maryinsky and been given chocolates by the tsar. But in the coming years, building on Petipa and Ivanov’s legacy would prove difficult and contentious. Their ballets — indeed, ballet itself — stood for the past and a dying aristocratic principle, for a way of life that was rotting from within and under attack from without. Ballet would have to change. A new and defiantly Russian century in dance was about to begin.

And that is another story.

From “Apollo’s Angels: A History Of Ballet” by Jennifer Homans

A Night at Teatro di San Carlo

Teatro di San Carlo – auditorium view from the stage

Though it no longer rivals La Scala as a household name, nor has the contemporary cachet of Teatro La Fenice, Teatro di San Carlo is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world. Moreover, it is Italy’s oldest opera house and the oldest working opera house in Europe, having presented performances continuously since its foundation, with a few brief interruptions. To visit the Teatro di San Carlo today is to reenter the glamorous world of the theatre’s – and Naples’ – early 19th century operatic heyday, especially on a performance night, when music and spectacle work their magic and the glorious setting is further enlivened by the inimitable style and brio of the knowledgeable Neapolitan public, ever primed to proclaim fervent appreciation or haughty and withering disdain.

Theatro di San Carlo owes its origin – and its name – to the Spanish Bourbon king of Naples, Charles VII (aka Charles III of Spain and Charles V of Sicily). Following his reconquest of Naples from the Austrians in 1734, Charles not only decided to settle in the city but also began reshaping it in a style befitting an imperial capital. An enthusiastic artist and connoisseur of music, Charles regularly attended operas at the city’s Teatro San Bartolomeo but became dissatisfied with its size, facilities, and especially the inadequate access for royal carriages – there was little room in the narrow streets for an appropriately grand entrance.

Interior of the Teatro San Bartolomeo

Legend has it that a near accident, when the king’s horses stumbled on uneven pavement stones and the royal carriage almost overturned, was the last straw for Charles VII.

In 1736, he had Teatro San Bartolomeo razed to the ground and commissioned architects Giovanni Antonio Medrano and Angelo Carasale to construct a new opera house north of the new Palazzo Reale. It was a tall order, for Charles VII asked for “the largest [opera house] in Europe and in as little time as possible”, but Medrano and Carasale obliged, completing the building within eight months and ten days, in time for the theatre to open on the king’s onomastico (name day), November 4, the day of St. Charles – San Carlo. This achievement won both men much welcome royal favour, and Carasale an enviable nickname for the wonders he had worked in the sumptuous interior: “Man of Miracles”.

Charles III, King of Spain
Portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1761

With the king, his courtiers, and the cream of Neapolitan society in attendance, the Real Teatro di San Carlo (Royal Theatre of St Charles) commenced its remarkable history with a performance of Domenico Sarro’s Achille in Seiro (1737), featuring a libretto by Metastasio. True to the convention of the day, Achille was played by a woman, Vittoria Tesi; also starring were the soprano Anna Peruzzi and tenor Angelo Amorevoli. No doubt the performers faced stiff competition that night from the theatre’s magnificent interior: a horseshoe-shaped auditorium almost 30 meters long and 23 meters wide, flanked six levels of boxes – 184 in all – plus a grand royal box seating ten people. Pillars and facings were decorated with gold leaf, and the plush seats were upholstered in blue velvet – blue and gold being the official colours of the Bourbon dynasty.

Naples was already a vital musical centre, noted in particular for its outstanding stagings of opera buffa, then in vogue across much of Europe, but increasingly, too, for performances of works of opera seria, many written by southern Italian composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Cimarosa, and Giovanni Paisiello. Neapolitan musical life was at its height, dominated by Nicola Porpora, Niccolò Jommelli and Johann Adolf Hasse “the Saxon”. The superstars of the era were the castrati, the most famous of whom – including Farinelli and Caffarelli – all trained in Naples. The opening of the Teatro di San Carlo extended the city’s repertoire and bolstered its position as the musical capital of Europe.

Portrait of Farinelli by Jacopo Amigoni (c. 1755)

By the late 18th century, a sojourn in the city and a visit to the theatre became almost de rigueur for nobles undertaking the Grand Tour, and a succession of notable visitors hymned the theatre’s splendour. Attending in 1773, English music critic Charles Burney proclaimed that the Teatro di San Carlo, “as a spectacle, surpassed all that poetry or romance have painted” and adjudged it “superior to … the great French opera of Paris.”

Early in the 19th century, Joachim Murat, brother-in-law to Napoleon I, became King of Naples. In 1810, he commissioned the set designer of the Teatro di San Carlo, Antonio Niccolini, to design a new facade to assert his rule. His motivation was clearly political: Teatro di San Carlo could no longer be a court theatre connected to the royal palace, rather it had to become an edifice open to the bourgeoisie. Niccolini thus gave the San Carlo its own façade, avoiding any resemblance to the neighbouring Palazzo Reale. Its style was both austere, with arcades made of neo-antique stone, and supremely elegant, particularly in the series of fourteen columns bordering the loggia. Five bas-relief panels represent the principal mythological figures, from Orpheus to Apollo.

Following the Napoleonic Wars, the Teatro di San entered a new phase, one that would see its most glorious times – and its greatest disaster. Instrumental in its early 19th century success was a colourful Milanese entrepreneur who was to become the most famous impresario of his day and one of the most influential figures in European opera production: Domenico Barbaia.

Domenico Barbaia in Naples in the 1820s (unknown)

Born in 1778, Barbaia opened numerous cafés in Milan and made a fortune selling arms during the Napoleonic Wars before he managed to acquire the lease of the gambling tables in the foyer of La Scala. That led to a managerial role in the theatre, and in 1809 his appointment as manager of the royal opera houses in Naples, including the Teatro di San Carlo. There, Barbaia quickly established a reputation for dazzling and innovative productions that attracted an avid public following and many of the leading singers of the day. Prominent among them was the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran, who became a great favourite of the king and Neapolitan opera lovers, as well as the Neapolitan tenor Giovanni David, the son of tenor Giacomo David, who had been one of the stars of the Teatro di San Carlo in the late 18th century.

Highlights of Barbaia’s early program included productions of Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale (1807) in 1811 and Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) in 1812, both of which boosted the popularity of opera seria. To exploit this new trend, as well as the talents of Colbran, in 1815 Barbaia secured the services of a rising star of opera seria, Gioachino Rossini. In return for an annual fee of 12,000 francs and a share of the takings from the theatre’s gambling tables, Rossini would compose two new operas a year and mount productions of established works. His first opera for Barbaia, Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra – written for Colbran and premiered in 1815 – was hailed as a triumph by public and critics alike.

Fortune seemed to be favouring the bold Barbaia, but his rapid rise was nearly derailed the following year by the most calamitous event in the history of the Teatro di San Carlo. On February 13, 1816, during dress rehearsals for a ballet-pantomime, a fire broke out and quickly spread through the theatre. Despite attempts to bring the conflagration under control, the entire building burned to the ground in just a few hours.

Teatro San Carlo, Naples after the 13 February 1816 fire (unknown)
Incendio del Real Teatro di San Carlo (12 February 1816)
by Salvatore Fergola

Undaunted, Barbaia assumed responsibility for reconstructing the theatre and, with the support of the new king Ferdinand IV and the services of Tuscan architect Antonio Niccolini, rebuilt in ten months. More remarkably still, Barbaia, Ferdinand IV and Niccolini did not simply restore the Teatro San Carlo to its former glory, but created something yet more splendid, a theatre that was, at the time, the largest in the world, and, very soon, the envy of all Europe.

Teatro di San Carlo in 1830 (unknown)

In front of the king and a capacity crowd of 2,500, the Teatro di San Carlo was reopened on January 12, 1817, with a performance of Simon Mayr’s Il sogno di Partenope (1817). It was on the next night that Stendhal visited. “There is nothing in all Europe … comparable to this theatre,” he wrote, “or that gives the slightest idea of what it is like.”

As in the original 18th century building, six tiers of boxes rose in a horseshoe shape around the stalls; the ornamentation and decoration were, however, yet more fabulous than before. The huge proscenium arch was decorated with a delicate bass-relief entitled Time and the Hours; the enlarged stage provided more space in the wings, to allow for the preparation of elaborate scenery and the use of horses, camels and even elephants.

Each tier of boxes was separated by a continuous frieze adorned with patters and figures derived from the antiquities of Herculaneum, just outside Naples, and finished in gold and silver leaf. The boxes were separated by square Classical columns topped with candelabras, and each one was backed by a mirror, tilted so that the occupants could see the royal box without turning and thereby take their cue – for applause, a bis (encore), or a standing ovation – from the monarch. Occupying two levels, the royal box was surmounted by what appeared to be a canopy of velvet curtains tied back with gold braid and topped by a colossal Bourbon crown, though in fact the whole elaborate structure was fashioned from papier-mâché and painted to enhance the trompe l’oeil effect.

The Bourbon crown above the royal box
View from inside the royal box

Perhaps the most dramatic feature was revealed on looking upward: a vast, circular and superbly rendered ceiling fresco, painted by Giuseppe Cammarano, showing Apollo presenting great poets – ranging from Homer to Italian poet Alfieri – to Minerva. The gods and poets perched in the clouds beneath a golden sun and blue sky, as if the fresco was a window onto the heavens. Thanks to the materials used for the interiors, there was no reverberation and sound was absorbed with no variation between different seats, giving the theatre its virtually perfect acoustics.

Ceiling in the auditorium of Teatro di San Carlo

Aside from today’s ravishing red colour scheme, with which Niccolini replaced the original blue paint and upholstery in 1854, almost all of these decorative features remain intact today, and modern visitors can savour the same awe-inspiring scene that so enchanted Stendhal and other early 19th century patrons.

This woodcut print by Giuseppe Barberis depicts the Teatro di San Carlo in 1894, close to a century after its fire incident.

True to his word, Rossini turned out two operas a year from 1816 to 1822, including Otello (1816), Ermione (1819) and La donna del lago (1819). With the composer’s star in the ascendant, Barbaia enjoyed triumph after triumph, and spectacular takings. Such was his success that in 1821 he was also appointed manager of two theatres in Vienna, the Theatre en der Wien and the Kärntnertortheater. For a time Colbran became his lover, but then she, too, fell under the spell of Rossini and left the impresario for his composer. The two men remained on good terms, but Rossini and Colbran departed for Vienna after marrying in 1822. Rossini’s farewell opera at the theatre was the much-celebrated La gazza ladra e Zelmira.

Gioachino Rossini and Isabella Colbran
In 1815 Rossini composed the title role of ‘Elizabeth, Queen of England’ especially for the Spanish prima donna. She moved with the composer – who was seven years her junior – to Bologna in 1822, where they married. She created the title role of Semiramide before retiring from singing aged 42. Colbran had a gambling problem and her health declined. Despite separating, Rossini continued to support her and always credited her as being the greatest interpreter of his music.

Quick to react to what might have been a disastrous blow, Barbaia recruited other leading lights of the opera seria scene, including Giovanni Pacini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, who was associated with the theatre from 1822 until 1838 and produced for it some of his most famous works, including Maria Stuarda (18350, Roberto Devereux (1838) and the timeless Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). Even after Barbaia’s death in 1841, major composers were still drawn to the Teatro di San Carlo. Giuseppe Verdi premiered two operas at the theatre, Alzira in 1845 and Luisa Miller in 1849, but he withdrew another, Gustavo III, after Neapolitan authorities attempted to censor it.

With the focus of political and cultural power shifting northward as a result of the unification of Italy in 1861, Naples lost its status as the nation’s musical capital and the Teatro di San Carlo ceded its position as the leading opera house to La Scala. It reached its nadir in 1874, when takings fell, management could no longer pay the performers, and the house had to close for a year. Fortunately, however, Italian composers remained at the forefront of European musical movements, notably Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni, as well as the Neapolitans Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, Francesco Cilea and Franco Alfano. With most remaining loyal to the Teatro di San Carlo, it quickly recovered.

Teatro di San Carlo foyer

The formation, in the late 19th century, of a house orchestra under the directorship of Giuseppe Martucci helped draw a succession of influential conductors to the theatre, including Arturo Toscanini (in 1909), Mascagni (house conductor from 1915 to 1922) and Richard Strauss, who in 1934 conducted his own works. In turn these incomers broadened the theatre’s repertoire to include foreign operas, most notably those of Richard Wagner.

During WWII, with the city occupied by the Germans and the theatre damaged by bombs and gunfire, the musicians and other staff of the Teatro di San Carlo had to stay away for more than a year. But following the Allied liberation in October 1943, performance at the theatre quickly resumed, thanks mainly to the extraordinary intervention of an English Royal Artillery officer, Peter Francis.

After coming across the ravaged but still magnificent theatre, Francis resolved to reopen it. With the backing of his superiors, he rounded up former stagehands, who set to work repairing the stage and lighting, and recruited soldiers and local buildings to reconstruct the damaged foyer. Just three weeks later, Francis held a musical revue at the theatre; as word got around, more musicians and singers drifted back, overtures and arias were performed, and, on Boxing Day 1943, the first postwar opera at the theatre, a matinée performance of Puccini’s La bohème (1896), took place. So successful was Francis that he was asked to stay on as manager, and for two years he oversaw the production of no fewer than 30 operas, featuring singers such as Beniamino Gigli and Tito Gobbi.

In the postwar era, the Teatro di San Carlo quickly regained its standing and welcomed a new influx of leading singers and conductors. Modern works began to be performed more regularly – a highlight was the Italian premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) in 1949. Yet, even as management looked to the future, the building was reflecting its age. Though its glorious auditorium was well preserved, visitor facilities and air conditioning were no longer adequate and the stage machinery was outmoded; moreover the theatre had accrued a sizeable deficit.

Thankfully, a 67 million euro grant from the Campania region funded two six-month bouts of comprehensive renovations in 2008 and 2009, including the creation of a new rehearsal hall and the restoration of the theatre’s decor. When the theatre reopened on (Mozart’s 254th birthday) January 27, 2010, with a performance of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (1791), the reconstruction was hailed around the world as a spectacular success. It was also apparently on time and on budget!

A night at Italy’s biggest and oldest opera house is a magical experience. The theatre has an opera, concert and ballet season. If you’re not going to a show, you can still soak up the building’s beauty on a guided tour. We did both – one Saturday in October 2007 we took a guided tour of the theatre in the morning, and went to all Gershwin concert in the evening. The Orchestra of the Teatro di San Carlo under conductor Wayne Marshall (who also played the piano on the night) played Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Overture, Concerto in F for piano and orchestra, Cuban Overture and the Porgy and Bess Symphonic Suite (arrangement by Russell Bennett)

Wayne Marshall (b. 1961) is an English pianist, organist and conductor.

We got one of the boxes, for the novelty. Highly recommend the stalls! More comfortable seats and a better view.

We’ll need to go back. The photos are shocking (shocking!) and it was before the grand restoration. Luckily someone else took a better photo!

In the royal box at Teatro di San Carlo on 27 October 2007

Tosca at Opéra Bastille

In the City of Light, the Paris Opéra, one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished companies, is divided between two locations separated by four kilometres, or a handful of Métro stops: the neo-Baroque Palais Garnier, inaugurated in 1875, and the modern Opéra Bastille, with its convex glass facade, which opened more than 100 years later in 1989 and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

As early as 1968, calls were being made for a new opera house in Paris to remedy the limitations of the Palais Garnier. Whether or not the City of Lights needed Opéra Bastille in addition to the Opéra Garnier is now a moot point, Opéra Bastille is here to stay, and both have found their niche without dislodging the many smaller and private theatres which also present opera.

Opéra Bastille

The prime movers in the appeal for a new opera house were composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, choreographer Maurice Béjart and actor and director Jean Vilar. Boulez in particular called for an “integrated solution”, a cité de la musique that would feature a theatre and a conservatory (since the Conservatoire de Paris was old and delapidated). Fierce debate raged as to what else should be included in such a musical city. Other buildings that could be added were homes for the contemporary music ensemble and the Orchestre de Paris (since the city lacked a modern symphonic hall). The model for these integrated ideas was, to some degree, the Lincoln Centre in New York.

Only a new opera house aroused any real enthusiasm, and in 1981 the idea found favour with the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, and especially with the new Socialist French President, Francois Mitterrand. The location for the new opera house also had several contenders: La Villette was the early favourite, but eventually the Place de la Bastille was chosen. In 1981, it was argued that the Palais Garnier was an old-fashioned, elitist institution and that there was a need for a more progressive opéra populaire, hence the symbolic (cynics would say public-relations) selection of the Bastille site. The decision to split the opera house from the other proposed parts of the “musical city” also gained favour, even though this contravened the ideology of the initial project.

President Mitterrand announced the competition to design the new opera house in 1982; the rest of the “musical city” would be built in La Villette, although it was to become mired in political manoeuvring. Importantly it was decided that the new opera house would occupy a central place in the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July, 1789, during the French Revolution.

The Opéra Bastille Public Establishment competition received hundreds of entries. Three finalists were chosen and in November 1983, President Mitterrand selected the winner – an unknown Canadian-Uruguayan architect named Carlos Ott, who moved to Paris to oversee the project.

There are several accounts of variable accuracy of how the design was chosen; that the president pointed at the wrong model, that the jury was sure that they had chosen the design of the superstarchitect of the moment, Richard Meier. According to Georges Poisson, whose book, Les Grands Travaux des Présidents de la Ve République provides a readable and perceptive account of all the major projects built in Paris from the Centre Pompidou (1977) to the Musée du Quai Branly (2005), the jury, without much enthusiasm, presented Mitterrand with a shortlist of six projects from among the 757 entries. The president then eliminated all but two and then added a third before choosing Carlos Ott’s design over that of Christian de Portzamparc, who proposed a more radical remodelling of the Place de la Bastille, filling the entire triangle from Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine to Rue du Lyon and thus building over Rue du Charenton.

It turns out, Richard Meier had entered the opera competition but was eliminated in the first cut, together with other architectural stars such as Charles Moore, Kisho Kurokawa and the Miami firm Arquitectonica. As designers often do, these architects had taken liberties in interpreting the competition program. The French bureaucrats who had originally promoted the idea of a modern people’s opera and who were advising the jury were having none of that. The bureaucrats had written a 423-page competition program minutely describing the new opera (including a schematic plan of the building), and they expected it to be slavishly followed. That is what Ott – and he alone – had done.

So while the jury did, according to Poisson, think that it saw the “hand of Meier” in Ott’s design, the design was exactly what the French bureaucrats asked for. In the end, the French got what their bureaucrats wanted: not the most beautiful opera house in the world, but the biggest (despite its smaller seating capacity, the Opéra Bastille complex is three times larger than the Met) and technologically the most advanced. The French have an abiding faith in new technology – which they often invent with considerable skill – and what is most innovative about the Opéra Bastille is not the architecture but the engineering. More than half of the Bastille site is taken up by enormous backstage facilities, which include not only a rehearsal hall, a mobile orchestra pit, a turntable, and a mobile stage that is also an elevator but also eleven ancillary scenery stages on two levels, joined together by an automated system of motorised trolleys. The purpose of all this space and machinery is to permit the rapid rotation of different operas: while one is being performed, another can be in rehearsal, and scenery for a third can be made ready on the lower level. It is a marvel of engineering, and despite some opening-night mishaps it all does appear to function as intended.

The stage of Le Grande Salle

Ott’s efforts to fit his building into the Place de la Bastille were surely made more challenging by the building’s blankness, its pure geometric forms, especially drums, and all the smooth gridded surfaces. So tight is the site that there is no space from which the opera house can be seen to advantage, except perhaps from the base of the column (Colonne de Juillet), were one courageous enough to brave the hazardous traffic. To make matters worse, the main facade of the Opéra is partially obscured by a small, undistinguished building housing a brasserie. At the time of construction, historians believed that a 19th century building on this site had originally been a 17th century neighbour of the Bastille prison. This turned out not to be the case, but by then the building had been torn down, so a replica, based on an old engraving, was built in its place.

The design was devised, chosen and constructed during the zenith of historicist post-modernism. Carlos Ott has described the design as “a functional project which is not essentially aesthetic.” Indeed, as much as such a thing is possible, Ott has reduced the aesthetic experience to a minimum. This is a building in which everything that is not granite is stainless steel, everything that is not white is black, and everything, absolutely everything, is obsessively arranged according to a square grid – the window mullions, the seams of the granite slabs and the stainless steel panels, the joints of the paving, even the supports of the railings. The same graph-paper motif and the same palette, if one can call it that, are continued in the interior.

The Opéra Bastille was ill-starred from the start. In 1984, for two months, Jacques Chirac, the right-wing mayor of the city of Paris, refused to grant a building permit for the left-wing president’s new opera house. In 1985, the newly appointed artistic director, Jean-Pierre Brossmann, resigned, apparently unwilling to bend to one of the exigencies of a people’s opera – fewer rehearsals and more performances. In July 1986, the building site was shut down completely for two weeks; political wrangling had broken out again between Chirac, newly elected as prime minister, and Mitterrand, and it threatened to scuttle the opera completely. In 1988, Mitterrand won a second term as president, the socialists were returned to power, and a plan to build a reduced version of the Opéra was revived – it remained to complete the building for its opening on Bastille Day, July 14, 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Then, in January 1989, the conductor Daniel Barenboim, who had been named artistic director only two years before, was abruptly fired; his programming ideas had been judged too “elitist” (Barenboim had proposed Mozart!). His dismissal caused an international stir: prominent conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta and Sir Georg Solti said that they would have to reconsider their association with the Paris Opera; Pierre Boulez, the director Patrice Chéreau, and the singer Jessye Norman (who was to sing at the inaugural) all resigned in protest. “What’s the difference between the Titanic and the Opéra Bastille?” went a Parisian joke. “The Titanic had an orchestra.”

Well, the Opéra didn’t sink, and it did acquire a new music director and conductor, albeit not a famous one: Myung-Whun Chung, a young Korean-American previously best known as the younger brother of the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung. Chung was fired himself, in 1994. In 1995, James Conlon became conductor and music director of Paris Opera, leaving in 2004, the longest of any conductor at Paris Opéra since 1939. In 2009, Philippe Jordan took on the post of music director at the Paris Opéra and amazingly he is still there, making him the longest of any music director to date. He has been appointed music director of Vienna State Opera from 2020, so Paris Opéra might find itself without a music director again, as it did in the intervening period between Philippe Jordan and James Conlon.

Back to Opéra Bastille, after the building permit was granted in 1984, the Gare de la Bastille, which had been closed since 1969, was demolished and construction began. The main theatre, known as La Grande Salle, was designed with 2,703 seats, each acoustically consistent. The seating plan, which is devoid of boxes and which allows every patron an unrestricted view of the stage, is a defiantly egalitarian riposte to Palais Garnier. However, since its opening, the acoustics have been described as disappointing. The auditorium of La Grande Salle is decorated in blue granite, pearwood and glass.

La Grande Salle, Opéra Bastille

Originally there were three additional theatres in the plan. L’Amphithéâtre is decorated in Classical Greek style with white breccia marble and seats 450, while Le Studio features white marble and pearwood, and has a capacity of 237. However, because La Salle Modulable (for baroque and contemporary works and with seating for between 600 and 1,500) was largely intended for the groups that would occupy the rest of the musical city, it was moved to that site in La Villette.

L’Amphithéâtre Bastille, at Opéra Bastille
Le Studio Bastille, at Opéra Bastille

In keeping with the ideology under which the new opera house was announced, Ott’s design had the “opaque cube” of the theatre “wrapped in gridded walls of glass”, allowing the outside world to see in. The lobbies are located immediately behind the curved glass wall and take advantage of the view in a manner common to many modern concert halls.

Foyer at Opéra Bastille
Le Foyer panoramique at Opéra Bastille

It is at night that Place de la Bastille achieves a magical quality with its spotlit column topped by a gilt Hermes, and Ott’s chief architectural conceit becomes apparent: to establish a dialogue between the building and the square by emphasising the transparency of this huge building.

Place de la Bastille

The heart of an opera house, at least for the audience, is the hall itself. The greatest constraint on the design of any performance space is its size: the greater the number of seats, the more difficult it is to achieve visual and acoustic intimacy. Some opera houses have limited their capacity to fewer than two thousand seats – Berlin’s Deutscher Oper, Milan’s La Scala and the Palais Garnier. At the other end of the scale are enormous modern halls like New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with 3,800 seats. At 2,700 seats, the Opéra Bastille steers a middle course. Although there are several tiers of loges, the layout, unlike the horseshoe-shaped Palais Garnier, is predominantly frontal, with two steep balconies.

La Grande Salle, Opéra Bastille

The Opéra Bastille has what one could call a modern sound: clear but not especially resonant. The sound appears to lack warmth, but perhaps that’s a psychological reaction to the decor. Opéra Bastille has what one would call a cool decor: the walls covered in grey granite and black wood, an undulating ceiling of white glass, and seats upholstered in black fabric. The interior of Opéra Bastille is distinctly impersonal – imperturbable and sleek in a corporate-boardroom sort of way, which perhaps reflects the architect’s previous experience managing projects for a real estate developer.

The Opéra Bastille is obviously intended to be a modern rethinking of the traditional opera house, but in turning away from la grande cuisine bourgeoise of the Palais Garnier, Carlos Ott has eschewed nouvelle cuisine and instead has provided the Parisian public with the architectural equivalent of bread and water. Moreover, because many of the details are crude and the workmanship is sloppy, the bread is not even a crusty baguette; this is American-style sliced bread!

We got to experience all this in 2007 when we attended a production of Tosca in November. During the transport strike and the unseasonably cold weather.

Puccini’s Tosca is no stranger to the stages of Paris. Alongside Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro and Bizet’s Carmen, Tosca has become a staple of Paris’ opera houses.

However, such popularity opens up challenges. With familiarity comes the problem of retaining freshness and novelty, how to hold the work back from crossing the line between popularity and predictability.

In May 1994, the Opéra Bastille commissioned a new staging of Tosca from director Werner Schröter, a German film director, who turned to theater and opera in Germany and abroad from the late 1980s. From 1994 to 2012, when Parisians wanted to see Tosca at Opéra Bastille , they had to be satisfied with the functional but tiresome production of Werner Schröter. A functional production for a functional theatre?

Being German, there was great efficiency in the setting in space and displacements of the sets, the clarity of the relations between the characters, the correctness of the costumes, the control of the light… The staging did not create any obstacles for the singers, possibly because there was so little of it!

The church of the first act might have been one of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons after a bombing, except for the statue of the Virgin at one side and Cavaradossi’s religious painting on the other. But the decapitated saintly head of the painting was hardly the Mary Magdalene of the libretto (a St. Catherine, perhaps?), and even less one that Floria Tosca could be jealous of.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca at Opéra Bastille in 2007

The second act, the most successful of the three, suggested a palace-prison interior, with the hint of a marble wall and the dimensions of a large salon indicated in blood-red lines. The playing area, which had only Scarpia’s huge table as furniture, was surrounded by horizontal apertures occupied by motionless guardians.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca at Opéra Bastille in 2007

The third act, an abstract top level of the Castel Sant’Angelo, didn’t have the statue of St. Michael that tops it in real life, but an image of a falling Satan or Lucifer to parallel Tosca’s leap into an interior void.

It was an abstract (and to some visionary) conception of what is one of the most realistic of operas – set in real locations in the Rome of 1800 and in the midst of real events. Schroeter strived to erase the excess of pathos of the story, and together with the abstract setting, this did not please literalists.

As described by Puccini’s biographer Mosco Carner, Tosca is a story of “sex, sadism, religion and art, a masterfully mixed dish served up on the platter of a major historical event”. Originally a French play by Victorien Sardou, Puccini was immediately inspired by the plot and sought to compose an operatic version, vastly reducing the lengthy original play as he did so. However, Puccini retained the essential ingredients: Mario Cavaradossi, a young aristocratic painter with a Republican loyalty, Tosca, a famous and religiously pious singer, as jealous as she is passionate, and Scarpia, a Roman chief of secret police hungry to satiate both his official duties and carnal desires.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca and Franck Ferrari as Scarpia at Opéra Bastille in 2007

Forming an intricate triangle of love, jealousy and deceit, Mario, Tosca and Scarpia provide a passionate tale, full of varying emotions and characters, each with their own motivations and impulses.

Schroeter’s direction of the singers, and other scenic detail, was uneven. Here too, Act 2 was the most successful, with the Tosca-Scarpia conflict carefully worked out and spectacularly culminated, with Scarpia expiring on the part of the desk not occupied by his unconsumed dinner. But much was made of Cavaradossi’s wounded hands, although Scarpia makes it clear that the painter’s head was where torture was applied. He dictates his third-act aria to an accommodating jailer, an aria that does not represent a letter but an erotic reverie. The corpse of a royalist soldier in Act 3 is never explained, and Tosca observes the execution of Cavaradossi improbably from directly behind the target.

After 11 years, what I remember most is watching an opera sung in Italian with French surtitles and concurrently translating it in my mind in two more languages. Quite a cacophony of words. Opéra Bastille has since introduced English surtitles (grudgingly I am sure!) and our next opera, Verdi’s La forza del destino should be a different experience.

Modern since 1669

This year Opéra National de Paris celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding by Louis XIV on June 28, 1669. Embroidered above the Palais Garnier’s thick velvet curtain is the date: Anno 1669.

Modern since 1669 is the slogan chosen by the Stéphane Lissner, the Paris Opera’s director, for the anniversary program of this year.

This year’s program includes new productions of Les Troyens, the two-part epic by Berlioz that opened the Bastille Opera in 1989 (Bastille Opera is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year), along with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, a rare rendering of Scarlatti’s Il Primo Omicidio, and most importantly, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Yes, most importantly, because little bears will be attending a performance of Don Giovanni in June to cheer on beary friends! 🙂 And look how happy they are about it!

Nicole Car, soprano, and Etienne Dupuis, baritone, will play in Don Giovanni at Paris Opera

The new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will be directed by Tony Award-winning director Ivo van Hove and will feature design work by two of van Hove’s frequent collaborators: Jan Versweyveld (sets and lighting) and An D’Huys (costumes). A co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, the opera is expected to play at the New York opera house in a future season.

Flemish stage director Ivo Van Hove won two Tony Awards for best director and best revival for his production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.

The Académie d’Opéra (it was renamed Académie Royale de Musique in 1672, but it was better known as the Opéra) performed mainly at the Palace of Versailles and the Palais Royal in Paris. When the 1789 revolution put the royal palaces out of the music business, performances soon resumed, first in the Salle Montansier in 1794, then from 1821 at the Salle Le Peletier.

Today, France is a republic and the Académie Royale de Musique has become the Académie Nationale de Musique.

And Palais Garnier is the 13th theatre to house the Opéra National de Paris.

Puffles and Honey in front of Palais Garnier in 2014

In 1858, Napoleon III authorised Baron Haussmann, supervisor of the reconstruction of Paris, to clear 12,000 square metres of land required to build a new opera house for the company. This theatre would be in addition to the 1821 Salle Le Peletier. In 1860, the boundaries of the new building were set between the rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin, the rue Neuve-des-Mathurins and the passage Sandrie. A competition, the first of its kind in France, was announced and architects were invited to submit their proposals for the building, but they were given only one month in which to proffer their entry. Despite this short timeframe, 171 entries were received. All submissions were anonymous, identified by numbers and slogans. The winner, announced on May 29, 1861, was the unknown architect Charles Garnier. His motto was a quote from Italian poet Torquato Tasso: Bramo assai, poco spero, loosely translated “I aspire to much, I expect but little”.

Jean-Louis Charles Garnier (1825-1898)

Charles Garnier (6 No­vem­ber 1825 – 3 Au­gust 1898) was much more than one of the most audacious architects of his time; this former student of the Beaux-Arts in Paris, winner of the Grand Prix de Rome in 1848, also made his mark as a writer (he was a member of the Société des gens de lettres) and a caricaturist who specialised in portraits. His approach was based on a blending of the arts and various cultures. A great traveller, he roamed the Orient with the writer Théophile Gautier.

Garnier was twenty-three when he won the Grand Prix de Rome, a French scholarship for arts students that was established in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV of France. Winners were awarded a bursary that allowed them to stay in Rome for three to five years at the expense of the state.

Salle Le Peletier had been constructed as a temporary theatre in 1821. Street access to that theatre was greatly constricted, and after an attempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Napoleon III at the theatre’s entrance on 14 January 1858, it was decided to build a new opera house with a separate, more secure entrance for the head of state.

Applicants were given a month to submit entries. There were two phases to the competition, and Garnier was one of 171 entrants in the first phase. He was awarded the fifth-place prize and was one of seven finalists selected for the second phase. The second phase required the contestants to revise their original projects and was more rigorous, with a 58-page program, written by the director of the Opéra, Alphonse Royer, which the contestants received on 18 April. The new submissions were sent to the jury in the middle of May, and on 29 May Garnier’s project was selected for its “rare and superior qualities in the beautiful distributions of the plans, the monumental and characteristic aspect of the facades and sections”.

Garnier was only thirty-four years old when he won the competition for the opera house and all he had built to date was an apartment house on Boulevard Sébastopol. He didn’t even have an office and had to quickly establish one on site at the opera house.

Garnier’s wife Louise later wrote that the French architect Alphonse de Gisors, who was on the jury, had commented to them that Garnier’s project was “remarkable in its simplicity, clarity, logic, grandeur, and because of the exterior dispositions which distinguish the plan in three distinct parts – the public spaces, auditorium, and stage … ‘you have greatly improved your project since the first competition; whereas Gi­nain [the first-place winner in the first phase] has ruined his’.”

Concrete foundations were laid in January 1862, but the depth of the basement meant that the site stayed wet no matter what steps were taken. Garnier installed eight steam engines that pumped continuously, 24 hours a day, from March to October, to drain the site. Still, the problem would no go away, so Garnier built a double walled foundation sealed with bitumen to keep moisture away from the opera house’s foundations, as well as a large cistern that would collect water away from the building’s foundations and act as a reservoir in case of fire. You can see this reservoir in the classic French film La Grande Vadrouille, directed by Gerard Oury. Today, Paris firefighters train here.

Because of this cistern, the idea persists that the Palais Garnier was built over a subterranean lake, a feature of Gaston Leroux’s serial Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, which was first published in book form in 1911. Garnier’s substructure for the building was complete by the end of 1862.

Napoleon III’s desire to see a model of the building as it was envisioned resulted in another remarkable development in the construction of the opera house. Sculptor Louis Villeminot created the model in 1863 at enormous cost (8,000 francs). The emperor then requested several changes to both the model and the building design, and the altered model went on display to the French public so that they could see what was being built.

One legend about Charles Garnier’s victory in the competition to design the theatre was that the Empress Eu­génie, possibly upset that her favourite candidate (the architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc) had not won, asked Garnier: “What is this? It’s not a style; it’s neither Louis XIV, nor Louis XV, nor Louis XVI.” Garnier is said to have replied: “Why Ma’am, it’s Napoleon Trois, and you complain!” Whatever the source of the phrase, this defining term has come to characterise the magnificent opulence of the building, as well as its representation of the style of the Second Empire and the Emperor who had it created: ambitious, confident, and forward-looking.

As the magnificent façade was being constructed, it was hidden from view by scaffolding, which was removed in 1867 in time for the Paris Exposition.

Façade of Palais Garnier in 1867
Palais Garnier

Above the vast Corinthian columns was an entablature with the inscription “Académie Impériale de Musique”. When Napoleon III was deposed in early September 1870, one of the first actions of the Third Republic was to change the inscription to Théâtre National de l’Opéra, so emblematic of the old regime had the theatre become. Work stopped on the theatre during the siege of Paris from September 1870 to January 1871. Garnier’s preparations were so complete and reliable, that throughout the siege the theatre was used as a warehouse to store food and as a hospital.

After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Garnier fell ill and left for Italy to recuperate, leaving his assistant Louis Louvet in charge. During the Paris Commune of 1871, the National Guard was quartered inside the building and charged with its defense as well as distributing the provisions housed there. The Commune wanted to replace Garnier, but in May the National Guard was driven from the building by Republican troops and the replacement architect (whose identity is not known) never took up his position. Almost as if the loss of the theatre by the Commune troops symbolised the defeat of the Commune itself, it fell within a week. Work resumed on the theatre four months later, in September 1871.

Unfortunately the whole building project and Garnier himself were associated with the Second Empire, something to which the new Republican government took a particular dislike. Garnier found securing further funding difficult, and he had to scale back the scope of the building. On October 28, 1873, that opposition disappeared when the Salle Le Peletier burned to the ground. From that moment on, work on the new theatre accelerated without interference until its completion in 1874. After finishing the opera house, Garnier retired to Italy, although he returned to France for various commissions including Jacques Offenbach’s tomb in the Montmartre Cemetery. He also designed the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.

The opening night on January 5, 1875, was a grand gala concert featuring the overtures to Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) and Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829), the first two acts of Fromental Halévy’s 1835 opera La Juive (with Gabrielle Krauss in the title role), along with The Consecration of the Swords from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1836 opera Les Huguenots and the 1866 ballet La source with music by Léo Delibes and Ludwig Minkus. As a soprano had fallen ill, one act from Charles Gounod’s Faust (1859) and one from Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (1868) had to be omitted. Nevertheless, the evening was an enormous success.

Inauguration of the Paris Opera in 1875, by Édouard Detaille (1878)
Collections of the Château of Versailles

The president of the Republic, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon, was present, as well as other dignitaries including King Alfonso XII of Spain and the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William James Richmond Cotton. During the intermission Charles Garnier stepped out onto the landing of the grand staircase to receive the approving applause of the audience. He had been obliged to pay for his own seat for the gala concert, because the organisers forgot to invite the architect to the gala concert, or perhaps as some kind of anti-imperial statement.

The monumental and opulent design of the theatre is evident in almost every aspect of its architecture and decoration. Marble friezes, Classical columns, lifelike statues and bronze embellishments adorn every room in Baroque sumptuousness. One contemporary critic scathingly described the theatre as “looking like an overloaded sideboard”. while French composer Claude Debussy later expressed the opinion that the outside was reminiscent of a railway station and the interior looked like a Turkish bath. Despite these negative comments, today the Palais Garnier is regarded as a masterpiece of the Beaux Arts period of Neo-Baroque style.

The least one can say is that the opera house’s facade is an eclectic style. With arcades, columns, gilding, cupolas, and winged horses, it is pure aesthetic excess, miles away from the traditional neoclassical edifices fashionable in the second half of the 19th century. Garnier was a convinced partisan of poly-chromism, using contrasts of scale, materials and colours throughout the design. This was a heresy in a traditional monochrome Parisian setting.

Garnier made maximum use of the diamond shape plot allocated to the opera house by Haussmann. Garnier tried in vain to change the shape of the plot, but Haussmann considered the roads and the traffic flow more important. To the usual rectangular shape, Garnier added two side pavilions: one as a private entrance for season ticket holders and one as private entrance for the Emperor. The Emperor was to reach this entrance via a driveway worthy of a château. This is the only exception to the total symmetry of the building. Garnier was criticised for sacrificing the law of parallelism to courtly flattery.

Aerial view of Palais Garnier

Garnier also wanted the building’s various parts to be symbolically identified from the exterior. The pedimented top holds the stage house, the great cupola represents the audience seating, the loggia reminds us of the public foyer.

Garnier claimed only one source of inspiration: the Grand Theatre de Bordeaux by Victor Louis. As in Bordeax, the entrance to the building serves to condition the audience, welcoming them into a world of opulence. First one must pass under the arcades, then cross a low vestibule, like a kind of airlock, before discovering and inevitably being overwhelmed by the legendary grand staircase. This approach is also reminiscent of the placement of the narthex before the nave in great Romanesque churches like the Vezelay Abbey.

The Palais Garnier auditorium features the traditional Italian horseshoe shape, and is decorated in red and gold. The huge stage, the largest in Europe, can accommodate 450 performers, and the canvas house curtain was painted to represent a draped curtain with braid and tassels. Jules Eugene Lenepveu painted the ceiling which featured an immense, 7 ton, bronze chandelier designed by Garnier. The chandelier was criticised as it obscured both the view of the ceiling and the view from the fourth tier of boxes. In 1964, the original ceiling was replaced with scenes from 14 operas, painted by Marc Chagall. This new painting was installed on a removable frame that covers the original Lenepveu work. The Chagall painting has also been criticised because, according to some, it detracts from the carefully orchestrated decorations of Garnier’s design.

Palais Garnier main auditorium chandelier and ceiling painting by Marc Chagall
Palais Garnier main auditorium

The actual theatre, which occupies only a quarter of the public surface area, seats 2,000. At the time it was built, acoustics were still supervised directly by architects, who proceeded intuitively. Garnier even referred to acoustics as a “bizarre science” since some of the advice he received was seriously bizarre. In the end he decided to leave it to chance and do nothing at all specifically for good sound. By sheer damn luck, it worked out. Although during some performances, the sound can seem slightly muffled, probably due to the large amount of velvet and carpeting in the theatre. Conductors must therefore strive to obtain the maximum amount of subtlety from the orchestra.

Palais Garnier auditorium ceiling by Marc Chagall

One of Garnier’s specialties was the design of staircases, and the sweeping Grand Staircase of the Palais Garnier is almost as famous as the theatre itself. Built from various types of marble, this double staircase leads from the foyers to the different levels of the auditorium. The ceiling above the staircase is painted to represent different allegories of music, while the foyers offer lavishly decorated spaces in which audience members can mingle. The Grand Foyer, which was restored in 2004, was built to resemble a château. Its dominant decorative element is the lyre, which appears on the capitals of the columns, on grates, and even on doorknobs. Paul Baudry painted the ceiling to represent various moments in the history of music.

The foyer’s succession of mirrors evokes the famous Hall of Mirrors at the Chateaux de Versailles. Also striking are the sculpted allegories filigreed throughout the building in typical industrial revolution fashion. A second foyer, known as the dance foyer, is less well-known to the public. Garnier placed it behind the main stage to be used as an extension for scenes requiring particular depth. The dance foyer was accessible to season ticket holders only, who chose their dancers in a brothel like decor. A decor with a false air of innocence, the double arch of the ceiling hides a secret gallery for voyeurs. It was only in 1935 when this questionable practice was stopped and the season ticket holders were forbidden access. The dance foyer became what it was always meant to be, a space for dancers to practice.

Palais Garnier Grand Staircase
Palais Garnier Grand Foyer
Palais Garnier Grand Foyer ceiling

The original design called for huge quadriga statues to crown the façade. These were never completed, and were replaced with guilded bronze sculptural groups by Charles Gumery, which represent Harmony and Poetry, and were installed in 1869. Two decorative medallions with the letters “N” and “E” (representing Napoleon and Emperor) were included in the original design, but the letters were not ready when the façade was unveiled. However, these medallion letters were added in 2000 during the restoration work on the opera house.

Palais Garnier main auditorium

In addition to the main auditorium, the opera house includes several other spaces, such as a number of rehearsal rooms, salons, and a restaurant (which only opened in 2011, a lovely piece of architecture by Odile Decq, whose organic shape blends perfectly with the Napoleon III style). The Salon du Glacier has a ceiling painted by Georges Clairin depicting dancing fauns and bacchantes as well as tapestries illustrating a variety of drinks. One space that was never actually finished is the Rotonde de l’Empereur, one of the rooms Garnier had to curtail during the opposition of the early Republican government. The Rotonde de l’Empereur now houses the library-museum that records the history of the Opéra National de Paris and features permanent displays of paintings, drawings, photographs, and set models from the productions at the theatre. The unfinished dressed blocks of stone can be seen as they were left in 1870 when the work on a space intended for the Emperor himself had to be abandoned.

Little bears can hardly wait to run up and down the grand staircase and the grand foyer 🙂

Palais Garnier Grand Foyer
Palais Garnier Grand Staircase

Or to see the recently restored ceiling mosaics in the entrance foyer.

Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling
Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling
Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling

And the big question is, can little bears get opera cake at the Opéra restaurant? For breakfast?

Palais Garnier l’Opéra Restaurant

Just in case the answer is ‘non’ they are having some now, while watching a documentary on the opera house.

It’s been too long since little Puffles and Honey spent a beautiful operatic evening at Palais Garnier, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) and guests Yvonne Naef (mezzo soprano), Mikhail Petrenko (bass) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass) in a concert titled La passion du chant. It was November 2007 and we, along with everyone else in the audience, had to brave the transport strike and the cold wave to get to the theatre. There were difficulties organising the concert as well, there were no stage lights, but that created a greater intimacy for the evening of songs by Mussorgsky and Messiaen.

La saison de la galette est ouverte

As soon as the bûche de Noël disappears from French bakeries, another holiday sweet, the galette des rois takes its place.

L’Epiphanie (Epiphany), or le jour des Rois, is the feast day celebrating the newborn Christ being visited by the Magi, and since the Middles Ages, the French have fêted Twelfth Night of Christmas with the galette des rois, the King’s Cake. The traditional galette des rois is a round golden-brown puff pastry filled with delicious frangipane (almond cream), and it can contain, somewhere inside, a fève, or bean. Originally a real bean, the fève can now be anything from a plastic trinket to a tiny ceramic figure or even a gold charm.

Epiphany is derived from the Greek word ‘epiphaneia’ which means manifestations. Religiously, it means the appearance of an invisible divine being in a visible form.

The youngest person in the room gets the honour of announcing which person gets which slice of cake, and the lucky person to bite into their slice and discover la fève (and not break a tooth or choke in the process) is made king, or queen, for the day, and wears a gold paper crown. Lording over all the others, le Roi chooses a royal mate by dropping that fève into the wine glass of a beloved.

In another version of the fun and games of the galette des rois, someone (nimble) hunkers down under the table and calls out the guests’ names who are then served with a slice of the pastry. Louis XIV was reportedly particularly fond of this custom, until he wasn’t and abolished it. You can see the problem, one year someone else got the fève and became king for a day!

During the Revolution the dessert was renamed gâteau de l’égalité as playing kings and queens was frowned upon. One Frenchman is banned from partaking in the fève ritual: the president. While a massive 1.2 meter diameter galette is made up for the annual Epiphany reception at the Elysée Palace, the pastry chef is under strict instructions not to hide a fève in the cake because “it wouldn’t be appropriate to crown a king in the presidential palace”.

Emanuel and Brigitte Macron cut the galette des rois in 2018

Little bears love playing kings and queens! There is no fève game because everyone gets a present! 🙂