Ballet-féerie in three acts and seven scenes
Music by Pyotr Schenk
Libretto by Countess Lydia Pashkova
Décor by Pyotr Lambin, Konstantin Ivanov, Heinrich Levogt and Vasily Perminov
Costumes by Ivan Vsevolozhsky
20th December [O.S. 8th December] 1896
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg
Original 1896 Cast
Ysaure de Renoualle
Anne de Renoualle
Ebremard de Renoualle
Raymond de Renoualle
The young and beautiful Isora de Renoualle is married off by her brothers to the wealthy nobleman, Bluebeard. Isora 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 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 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.
The year 1897 was Petipa’s golden jubilee of service to the Imperial Theatres and a benefit performance was held to mark the occasion in December 1896. It was decided that a ballet adaptation of a third fairy tale by Charles Perrault (after Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella) would be staged. The Perrault fairy tale chosen for this occasion was Bluebeard, which tells the story of a rich nobleman with a huge blue beard, who is revealed to be a serial wife killer, having murdered six of his wives as punishment for disobedience. Coincidently, 1897 was also the 200th anniversary of the publication of Bluebeard, which made it all the more appropriate that Petipa stage a new ballet version of the fairy tale. The libretto was written by Countess Lydia Pashkova, who had previously written the libretto for Cinderella, and just like The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, the ballet adaptation of Bluebeard was to be a continuation of the ballet-féerie.
The ballet was staged in a lavish grandiose three-act and seven-scene production with an apotheosis, with sumptuous décor and costumes and complex, often rapid, stage metamorphoses. Although Perrault’s original story does not include any supernatural elements or activity, the ballet was not devoid of these elements, which took the forms of Curiosity and the underground chamber dwellers, the subject of the main divertissement of the second act. Interestingly, it also included scientific elements of astrology astronomy and time that were the subject of the divertissements of the third act. The divertissements also contained portions that were devoted to French dances – the first act included a Norman Dance and a Bourée, the latter of which was performed by students of the Imperial Ballet School, the second act contained a Passepied and the third act featured a Gaillarde, a Monaco and a Cotillon. Just like with The Sleeping Beauty, as a French fairy tale, Bluebeard was clearly another homage to Petipa’s native country.
The composer of Bluebeard was Pyotr Petrovich Schenk, one of the less-known Russian composers of the nineteenth century, whose name fell into obscurity after the 1917 Revolution. Schenk had graduated from the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire in 1887 as a pianist and took up music theory later. Born in 1870, he was orphaned at the age of six and was adopted by Imperial Theatre employee Pyotr Mikhailovich Schenk and his wife, the actress Ekaterina Reinecke, so a good part of his young adult life may have played in and out of the Imperial Theatre. There, he might have drawn attention to himself, possibly prior to his “brilliant début”. Following this success, he immediately appeared at the concert hall as conductor and pianist, performing his own works as well as others. If the Imperial management bargained for a ‘symphonist,’ they certainly had one in Schenk. According to unverified sources, Schenk started to compose Bluebeard in 1892, but should this prove to be unfounded, then the Imperial management surely eyed him as a potential candidate to, in time, follow in Tchaikovsky’s footsteps after many intended ballets by the lamented composer. In total, Schenk composed two ballets, five operas, four symphonies, symphonic poems, choruses, piano works, two operettas, cantatas and romances; for the romances, he closely collaborated with the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II. He died in 1915, aged 45, a year after the première of his final opera.
The libretto, of course, contained the familiar storylines seen in its predecessors; the parallels to The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella were more than clear, with Curiosity taking the place of the Lilac Fairy and the Fairy Godmother. However, Curiosity’s role is very different from that of the aforementioned fairies; the Lilac Fairy protects Princess Aurora and leads Prince Désiré to her and the Fairy Godmother grants Cinderella’s wishes. Curiosity, however, is a figment, a representation of Isora’s initiatives as she explores the underground chambers and urges to discover the contents of the forbidden chamber. She seems to be a parallel to the curiosity that overcame Pandora to open her box and Psyche to discover the identity of her mysterious husband.
In the second act, the scene in Ysaure’s bedroom (shown in the photo below) 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 as her reflection. 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.
Bluebeard premièred on the 20th December [O.S. 8th December] 1896 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. With its spectacular staging, it 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.
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.
Divertissement astrologique et le temps
Perhaps the highlight of Bluebeard was the divertissement of final act. Like in The Sleeping Beauty, the final act of Bluebeard carried a theme for the wedding of the main couple – the theme of Désiré and Aurora’s wedding was French fairy tales and the theme of Ysaure and Arthur’s wedding was astrology, astronomy and time. The third act took place in front of a temple devoted to Saturn, who in Roman mythology, was the god of time. It seems that this Saturn theme was to symbolise the hard work, continuity, organisation rule and wisdom of old age, all of which were applicable to the aging yet unyielding force that Petipa was. A theory regarding this possible symbolism says that Pashkova might have written and handed in the libretto for Bluebeard years before it came to be chosen as a vehicle for Petipa’s 50th jubilee. If this was the case, the theme of Saturn could have been added as a later proposal by Vsevolozhsky to honour his long-time friend with this allegory.
The divertissement began with the Universe, which featured constellations, stars and the planets Mars and Venus, represented in their epitomes from Roman mythology. Next came the three different aspects of time – the Spirit of Past, the Spirit of Present and the Spirit of Future. The highlight of the third act divertissements was the Pas de deux électrique, which was performed by Pierina Legnani and Georgy Kyaksht. It is interesting to note that Legnani was partnered by an additional cavalier in the Grand Pas de deux rather than Sergei Legat and the reason for this casting seems unclear. What can be dismissed, however, is a theory that Legat was not technically accomplished, especially since he danced in the Grand Pas d’action of the first act and he led the ballet’s final general dance, the Cotillon with Legnani. It is true that Legat was often cast in partner roles, but by no means exclusively. He eventually made his début in the Grand Pas de deux électrique in 1903 when Kyaksht was in Moscow. A possible theory says that perhaps this casting was simply done so that the brilliant technician Kyaksht would have his rightful share in Petipa’s jubilee performance. However, another possible explanation is that Pavel Gerdt could have been the direct or indirect source of this casting policy. Splitting up the jeune premier danseur role had been a habit for many years to accommodate the aging Gerdt; his variations were danced by younger dancers in the same costumes. To break with this habit in the very same performance wherein Gerdt was billed as an elderly character dancer for the first time would pose a sudden and rough change of culture to which he might not have taken lightly, so Petipa and Vsevolozhsky may have treaded lightly here.
For the Grand Pas de deux électrique, Legnani introduced another novelty (after the 32 fouettés en tourant) when she performed triple pirouettes in her variations. These must have been triple pique turns en dedan, executed twice on the variation’s last bars where they correspond exactly with the percussion. The critic Alexander Plescheyev wrote that it was done “in the understated manner that was characteristic of her.”
- 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