Bluebeard

Ballet-féerie in 3 acts
Music by Pyotr Schenk

World Première
20th December [O.S. 8th December] 1896
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg

Original 1896 Cast
Bluebeard
Pavel Gerdt

Ysaure de Renoualle
Pierina Legnani

Arthur
Sergei Legat

Anne de Renoualle
Olga Preobrazhenskaya

Ebremard de Renoualle
Iosif Kschessinsky

Raymond de Renoualle
Alexander Oblakov

Ysaure’s friend
Claudia Kulichevskaya

The Knight
Nikolai Aistov

The Spirit of Curiosity
Olga Leonova

Mars
Nikolai Legat

Venus
Matilda Kschessinskaya

Plot
Based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Bluebeard tells the story of the young and beautiful Ysaure de Renoualle, who finds herself married off by her brothers to the wealthy nobleman, Bluebeard. Ysaure is deeply unhappy with this arrangement, as she is in love with the young page, Arthur, who her brothers consider to be an unsuitable match, due to his lack of fortune, unaware that they have unwittingly placed their sister in grave danger. After the wedding, Ysaure is consulted by the Spirit of Curiosity, who reveals that behind all his wealth and splendour, Bluebeard carries a dark secret, hidden in a forbidden chamber in his castle. Through the guidance of the Spirit of Curiosity, Ysaure discovers that her husband is a serial wife-killer, having murdered his previous wives as punishment for disobedience. This discovery almost causes her to meet the same terrible fate at Bluebeard’s hands, but luckily, her brothers and Arthur rescue her when they challenge Bluebeard to a combat. Ysaure is saved and finally, her brothers give their consent for her to marry Arthur.

Pierina Legnani as Ysaure and Sergei Legat as Arthur (1896)
Pierina Legnani as Ysaure and Sergei Legat as Arthur (1896)

History
Bluebeard was created and staged by Petipa for the benefit performance celebrating the 50th anniversary of his years of service to the Imperial Theatres. The ballet was given a lavish production with sumputous décor and costumes and complex, often rapid, stage metamorphoses. With this spectacular staging, Bluebeard has been labelled as the most lavish ballet that Petipa ever staged. However, several critics complained that the ballet sacrificed plot and artistic sensibilities in favour of spectacle, with the libretto merely serving as an excuse for elaborate stage transformations and even more elaborate dances. Nevertheless, Petipa’s choreography and dances were universally hailed as master-works of classical choreography. The critic from the St Petersburg Gazette commented on the danced numbers in Bluebeard:

… (Petipa) shows an endless variety and taste, with his work for the corps de ballet being masterfully executed. This year the ballet master celebrates his 50th year of service to our theatre, demonstrating once again that no one in Europe can claim to be his rival.

Olga Leonova as the Spirit of Curiosity (1896)
Olga Leonova as the Spirit of Curiosity (1896)

Sadly, Bluebeard was among those of Petipa’s ballets that fell into obscurity after the Russian Revolution. The ballet was performed for the last time by the Imperial Ballet ca. 1918.

Although Petipa’s choreography is irretrievably lost, in recent years, excerpts from Pyotr Schenk’s score for Bluebeard have been resurfacing. In 2009, when Yuri Burlaka and Vasily Medvedev staged their revival of La Esmeralda, they utilised excerpts from Schenk’s score to create their own Grand Pas des fleurs for the second act, replacing Cesare Pugni’s original Grand Pas des fleurs. In 2014, Medvedev utilised Schenk’s score again when he choreographed his own version of the Grand Pas de deux Electrique from the final act of Bluebeard. This new version of the ballet’s final grand pas de deux was premièred at the Russian ballet gala The Soul of Dance that was held in Moscow on the 30th April 2014.

The Mirror scene (1896)
The Mirror scene: from left to right Pierina Legnani as Ysaure, Claudia Kulichevskaya as Ysaure’s friend, Sergei Legat as Arthur and Olga Preobrazhenskaya as Anne (1896)

Did you know?

  • The scene in Ysaure’s bedroom (shown in the photo above) contained an episode in which a dancer mirrors the movements of the ballerina. When Pierina Legnani as Ysaure looked into her large mirror, Claudia Kulichevskaya was on the other side. This trick was given immortality by John Cranko in his ballet Onegin, but had been in use even before Bluebeard in ballets such as Perrot’s Éoline and Petipa’s La Camargo.

 

Sources

  • Petipa, Marius, Russian Ballet Master: The Memoirs of Marius Petipa. Translated ed. by Helen Whittaker, introduction and edited by Lillian Moore. London, UK: Dance Books Ltd (1958)
  • Beaumont, Cyril (1937) Complete Book of Ballets. London, UK: Putnam
  • Kschessinskaya, Matilda, H.S.H. The Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky (1960) Dancing in Petersburg: the Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinskaya. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd