Romantic Ballet in four acts and five scenes
Music by Cesare Pugni & Riccardo Drigo
9th March 1844
Her Majesty’s Theatre, London
Choreography by Jules Perrot
Original 1844 Cast
Phoebus de Châteaupers
Antoine Louis Coulon
Saint Petersburg Première
2nd January 1849 [O.S. 21st December 1848]
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Original 1848/49 Cast
Phoebus de Châteaupers
Première of Petipa’s first revival
29th December [O.S. 17th December] 1886
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1886 Cast
Phoebus de Châteaupers
Première of Petipa’s final revival
3rd December [O.S. 21st November] 1899
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1899 Cast
Phoebus de Châteaupers
Based by the famous novel Notre-Dame de Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame) by Victor Hugo, La Esmeralda tells the story of the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda, who, under gypsy law, marries the poet, Pierre Gringoire to save him from execution in the hands of the Gypsy King. The groom is smitten, but Esmeralda makes it clear that the marriage is strictly one of convenience. However, there is another who desires the gypsy girl – the corrupt Archdeacon Claude Frollo, who is torn between his duty to God and his lustful obsession with Esmeralda. When Frollo orders his deformed henchman, Quasimodo to capture Esmeralda, she is rescued by the handsome Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers and falls in love with him, unaware that he is engaged to the beautiful Fleur-de-Lys. Rather than have her attacker arrested, Esmeralda shows Quasimodo mercy and gives him some water, earning his affections. Phoebus gives Esmeralda his fiancée’s scarf, but when Fleur-de-Lys discovers this, she angrily calls off the engagement, leaving Phoebus free to be with Esmeralda. However, the jealous Frollo attempts to exact revenge by stabbing Phoebus, believing he has killed him, and frames Esmeralda for the crime. Esmeralda is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. On the day of the Feast of Fools, she is led to the gallows as Frollo watches in triumph. However, his plot is thwarted when Phoebus arrives alive and well, having survived the stabbing and recovered from his wound, and clears Esmeralda’s name.
La Esmeralda was created by Jules Perrot and Cesare Pugni for the Ballet of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. After its successful publication in 1831, Victor Hugo’s novel was first adapted to the stage in an opera by French composer, Louise Bertin in 1836 under the title La Esmeralda. The libretto for Bertin’s opera was written by Hugo himself, in which he made drastic changes so the story focused primarily on Esmeralda rather than Quasimodo. Bertin’s opera, however, was not a success, but its libretto ultimately gave way to the story that would be told in subsequent opera and ballet adaptations of Hugo’s novel. The novel was first adapted into a ballet at La Scala, Milan by Antonio Monticini in 1839. Monticini’s version differed greatly from Perrot’s, primarily due to a common tradition in Italian ballets at the time, where the functions of mime and dance were separated – the principal roles were played by mimes, while Fanny Cerrito, who was Prima Ballerina of La Scala at the time, only appeared in the dances.
Creation of Jules Perrot’s La Esmeralda
The idea for his own ballet version of La Esmeralda was suggested to Perrot by Benjamin Lumley, the celebrated director of Her Majesty’s Theatre. At first, Perrot rejected the idea, but Lumley managed to persuade him that it was a subject of good artistic value. When Perrot was working on the scenario, Lumley would often sit up with him well into the early hours of the morning, assisting and encouraging him in his task. Pugni, who was at that time comparatively unknown and was working in Paris, was commissioned to compose the score. This marked the first collaboration between Perrot and Pugni. By the early summer of 1843, Perrot was considering his options of who to cast as Esmeralda. His first choice was the French Prima Ballerina Adèle Dumilâtre, who is perhaps most famous for creating the role of Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle, and whom Perrot had introduced to London at the opening of that season in March. In the end, however, the role went to Perrot’s former protégée and mistress Carlotta Grisi, whom Lumley succeeded in engaging at Her Majesty’s Theatre for the 1844 season. Cast in the role of Phoebus de Châteaupers was the 23 year old Arthur Saint-Léon, who at the time was one of the most renowned Premier Danseurs in Europe, and Perrot himself originated the role of Pierre Gringoire.
La Esmeralda was originally created as a one-act ballet in five scenes that depicted certain episodes from the novel, including Esmeralda’s gypsy “marriage” to Pierre Gringoire, her attempted abduction in the hands of Quasimodo at the orders of Claude Frollo, the love triangle involving Esmeralda, the captain Phoebus and his fiancée Fleur-de-Lys and Frollo framing Esmeralda for Phoebus’s attempted murder, for which she is sentenced to death. Perrot and Pugni’s libretto, of course, contained major differences from its literary source, many of which were the changes Hugo himself had made in his libretto for Bertin’s opera. These changes included the omission of some of the novel’s most iconic scenes, including the secret of Esmeralda’s birth, her rescue by Quasimodo from the gallows, her sojourn in the sanctuary of the cathedral and the storming of Notre Dame by the truands. The fate of Frollo was edited from Quasimodo pushing him from the bell tower to stabbing him when he attempts to stab Esmeralda. The character of Phoebus was softened from a callous, vain womaniser into a noble hero who does not lust Esmeralda, but falls genuinely in love with her. The novel’s tragic ending was replaced with a happy one, in which Esmeralda is rescued from hanging and her name is cleared.
La Esmeralda premièred on the 9th March 1844. The ballet was a huge success, with many praising Grisi’s performance in the title role. When she had to return to Paris to perform in Giselle on the 6th May, Grisi performed in La Esmeralda for her benefit performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Following Grisi’s departure, La Esmeralda was temporarily removed from the repertoire until it was revived in the last weeks of the season for Fanny Elssler, whose performances as the gypsy girl, with her own distinctive interpretation, were a huge success in their own right.
La Esmeralda in Russia
Like many western ballets created at the time, La Esmeralda eventually disappeared from the London repertoire; it was performed for the final time at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1857. It was only when the ballet was brought to Russia that it found a permanent home. In 1848, Fanny Elssler arrived in Russia and a few months later, Perrot arrived to take up the post of Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres. Among the ballets that were staged for Elssler in Saint Petersburg was La Esmeralda, the revival of which Petipa worked on until Perrot’s arrival in the Imperial Russian capital. In his memoirs, Petipa wrote the following account on this event:
While I was in Moscow, Fanny Elssler was invited to Saint Petersburg, and started to rehearse the ballet Esmeralda… On my return from Moscow, I immediately commenced the staging of this ballet. I had finished the first act when Jules Perrot, the author of the ballet, arrived and himself took over the production of his wonderful work.
Afterwards, I always adhered to the recommendations and traditions of the author, neither permitting myself the smallest deviation, nor interpolating such disgusting tricks as the breaking of Quasimodo’s jaw during the already heartrending scene with Esmeralda’ mother, which for some reason was permitted on the Moscow stage.” – Russian Ballet Master: The Memoirs of Marius Petipa (p. 31)
Just like with most of the ballets he brought to Russia, Perrot was required to make drastic changes to La Esmeralda so that it would fit the Russian audience’s expectations of a ballet production, for in Russia, a ballet was expected to fill an entire evening. Pugni was called in to extensively revise and expand his score and the original one-act and five-tableaux staging of La Esmeralda was expanded to three acts and five tableaux.
Perrot’s revival of La Esmeralda premièred on the 2nd January 1849 [O.S. 21st December 1848] at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, with Elssler as Esmeralda and Petipa as Phoebus. The ballet was a huge success, with Elssler captivating the Russian audiences with her “fire, vivacity, animation, splendour, and attractiveness.” Petipa wrote of Elssler in his memoirs:
Every balletomane knows what a success this ballet enjoyed; and how could it not be otherwise, when the principal role was played by such a great artist as Fanny Elssler? She was positively inimitable in this role, and all the Esmeraldas I saw afterwards seemed pallid copies. – Russian Ballet Master: The Memoirs of Marius Petipa (p. 31)
La Esmeralda eventually disappeared from the Imperial Ballet repertoire in 1872. Fourteen years later, it reappeared on the Imperial stage in 1886 when Petipa revived the ballet for the great Virginia Zucchi. It was Petipa’s revival that became the definitive version of the ballet. After her successful début with the Imperial Ballet in 1885, Zucchi signed her second contract in January 1886, which gave her twenty-four performances for four months. It was announced that La Esmeralda was one of two ballets that was to be revived for her (the other was Excelsior). New decors and costumes were crafted, Petipa revised the choreography, Riccardo Drigo was commissioned to revise and refurbish Pugni’s old score and the ballet was expanded from three acts to four acts. Among Petipa and Drigo’s new changes were the additions of a new pas de six for Zucchi and Drigo’s revival of Pugni’s original Grand Pas des fleurs performed by Fleur-de-Lys and Phoebus in the third act. Drigo revised the Grand Pas des fleurs into a Grand Pas Classique, for which he composed some new musical additions. Every balletomane in Saint Petersburg was very excited for this new revival, especially at the thought of Zucchi performing the titular role. The role of Esmeralda makes not only technical demands, but also demands strong dramatic/acting abilities. Zucchi was renowned not just for her virtuosa abilities as a dancer, but also for her incredible dramatic abilities as an actress and every balletomane was convinced that Esmeralda would be only too fitting a role for her.
Petipa’s first revival of La Esmeralda premièred on the 29th December [O.S. 17th December] 1886 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre for Zucchi’s benefit performance and reports state that “the theatre was absolutely full.” The revival was an enormous success, with Zucchi’s performance receiving such enthusiastic praise. The critic Skalkovsky wrote, in the words of Zucchi’s biographer Ivor Guest, that “her success that evening was a triumph not merely for herself but also for the art of mime itself,” with Skalkovsky writing, “The shade of Noverre must have surely rejoiced in the Elysian fields.” His fellow critic Pleshcheyev wrote that not even Fanny Elssler could have surpassed Zucchi. Eye witness accounts also state that Zucchi was so in character that she went as far as to shed real tears during the ballet’s most emotional and tragic moments, such as when Esmeralda is being led to her execution in the final act. Zucchi’s performances as Esmeralda became legendary in Russia and the role became among the most coveted of parts for her.
Among those who saw Zucchi perform Esmeralda was the 14 year old Matilda Kschessinskaya, who wrote the following account in her memoirs of how much of an inspiration the Italian ballerina was to her:
I was fourteen when the famous Virginia Zucchi arrived in St. Petersburg. I was already receiving small roles which I strove to interpret to the best of my powers and which even won me praises. But I had no faith in what was being done in our company, and my dancing yielded me no deep satisfaction. I was seized with doubts: had I chosen the career which suited me? I cannot imagine where all that might have led me, had it not been for Virginia Zucchi’s arrival, who, immediately, and radically, altered my state of mind, revealing to me the true meaning of our art. Virginia Zucchi was no longer young, but her exceptional gifts had not lost their vigour. I felt an overwhelming, unforgettable sensation when I watched her. I felt that I was beginning to understand, for the first time, how one should dance in order to deserve the title of a great dancer. Virginia Zucchi had a wonderful gift for mime. She gave all the movements of classical ballet extraordinary charm and astonishing beauty of expression, filling the audience with enthusiasm whenever she danced.
Her acting henceforth became true art for me, and I understood that the essence of such art does not lie exclusively in technique, far from being an end, it is only a means.” – Dancing in Petersburg: The Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinska (p. 26)
Kschessinskaya would later go on to become another great interpreter of the role of Esmeralda in her own right. In 1899, Petipa added his final touches to La Esmeralda when he revived the ballet for the second and final time for Kschessinskaya. The role of Esmeralda was one that Kschessinskaya had always wanted to dance, ever since she saw Zucchi performing the role and was one of her favourites. She had first asked Petipa to allow her to dance the role when she was 20 years old, but Petipa denied her request. Kschessinskaya gives the following account of this conversation in her memoirs:
I told him that I should like to dance Esmeralda. He listened carefully and asked me point-blank in his jargon, “You love?”
Confused, I answered that I was indeed in love, that I did love.
Whereupon he continued, “You suffer?”
I thought it a strange question, and immediately replied, “Certainly not!”
Then he explained to me – a fact which I was to remember later – that only artists who had known the sufferings of love could understand and interpret the role of Esmeralda. – Dancing in Petersburg: The Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinska (p. 45)
Zucchi had experienced heartbreak with her first love, something that, ironically, Kschessinskaya would later experience.
Petipa’s revival of La Esmeralda began to be notated in the Stepanov notation method circa. 1900 by Nikolai Sergeyev and his assistants. The notation was created over time while some legendary dancers were rehearsing the ballet: Matilda Kschessinskaya, Sergei Legat, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Agrippina Vaganova, Elsa Vill, Mikhail Fokine, Mikhail Obukhov and Lyubov Egorova are all listed on the notation scores. Kschessinskaya assisted Sergeyev in completing the notation after her retirement in Paris and she is credited on the some of the pages as “Mathilde Kschessinska, Paris, 1923”. The notation scores for La Esmeralda are part of the Sergeyev Collection.
La Esmeralda in the 20th Century
Alongside Grisi, Elssler, Zucchi and Kschessinskaya, another great interpretor of the role of Esmeralda was Olga Spessivtseva, who made her début in the role on the 24th November 1918. In his biography of her, Sir Anton Dolin writes that Spessvitseva’s talent “shone like a blazing light.” He then goes on to explain that it was said that at that time, Spessivtseva had embarked on a love affair that had not ended happily, which served as the base for her own interpretation of Esmeralda and made her portrayal, in Dolin’s words, “an interpretation of overwhelming power and pathos.” Before she débuted as Giselle that same year, all agreed that Esmeralda was, at that point, Spessivtseva’s greatest role.
In 1902, Alexander Gorsky created his own Esmeralda ballet that was composed by Anton Simon and entitled Gudule’s Daughter for the Imperial Bolshoi Ballet. After the 1917 revolution, La Esmeralda reappeared on the former Imperial Mariinsky stage in 1935 in a new revival by Agrippina Vaganova, which was staged especially for the ballerina Tatiana Vecheslova. Many of Vaganova’s choreographic revisions became the standard choreography for the ballet in subsequent modern revivals. Perhaps the most famous fact about Vaganova’s revival is that it was in this production that the so-called Diana and Actaeon Pas de deux made its première. This was Vaganova’s new revised version of Petipa’s original Pas de Diane from Le Roi Candaule, which she transferred into La Esmeralda as a showpiece for Galina Ulanova and Vakhtang Chabukiani. During the Second World War, the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet evacuated to Perm, but one ballerina who did not evacuate was Olga Iordan. Rebelling against Vaganova, Iordan staged a short-lived production of La Esmeralda at the Comedy Theatre in Saint Petersburg that was closer to Petipa’s revival. Due to the many circumstances, however, this production faced multiple problems – the stage of the Comedy Theatre was too small to fit a large ensemble and the production was devoid of male dancers, since they were either in Perm or serving at the front. In 1950, Soviet Ballet Master Vladimir Bourmeister staged his own revival of La Esmeralda, which followed Vaganova’s revival, for the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre.
Throughout the twentieth century, La Esmeralda was rarely performed in the west. In his Spessivtseva biography, Sir Anton Dolin inaccurately writes that Anna Pavlova danced her own shortened version of La Esmeralda, but he was perhaps referring to her ballet Amarilla. The plot of Amarilla was very similar to that of La Esmeralda – Amarilla, a gypsy girl, is in love with a nobleman, who is engaged to a countess and at one point, just like Esmeralda, Amarilla has to dance before her beloved and his fiancée. Amarilla, however, did not use any of Pugni’s music, but was instead set to a pastiche arrangement of music by Drigo, Alexander Glazunov and Dargomizhsky. The ballet was choreographed by Ivan Clustine and premièred in London in 1912. In 1954, Nicholas Beriosov (father of the famous Prima Ballerina Svetlana Beriosova) staged a new full-length production of La Esmeralda for the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet). The production starred Natalie Krassovska as Esmeralda, John Gilpin as Pierre Gringoire, Oleg Briansky as Phoebus de Châteaupers and Sir Anton Dolin as Claude Frollo. However, the production was not a success and was mercilessly panned by critics and balletomanes alike. Subsequently, it did not live long in the London repertoire.
Today, La Esmeralda is only staged as a full-length ballet in Russia and New Jersey, where it was first staged in 2004. Russian companies that dance the full-length work include the Kremlin Ballet and the Stanislavsky Ballet, both of whom dance in revivals of Bourmeister’s 1950 production. In 2009, Yuri Burlaka and Vasily Medvedev staged a revival of La Esmeralda that is largely based on Petipa’s 1899 revival for the Bolshoi Ballet.
Did you know?
- A famous tradition of La Esmeralda was the use of a real little goat in the ballet to play Esmeralda’s pet goat, Djali. Kschessinskaya actually owned and trained the little goat that appeared as Djali with her in her performances as Esmeralda.
- La Esmeralda was Nikolai Legat’s favourite ballet. On the 9th February 1914, for his benefit performance celebrating his 25th year of service to the Imperial Theatres, he chose to dance the role of Pierre Gringoire in the ballet. When he made his entrance in the first act, he received an ovation that lasted at least ten minutes. This was the final time that Legat performed in his favourite ballet at his beloved Imperial Mariinsky Theatre.
- The music for the Grand adage in the Act 2 Grand Pas Classique (aka Grand Pas des fleurs) of La Esmeralda is widely used today as the music for the famous so-called Pas de deux for Nikiya and the Slave in many modern productions of La Bayadère. This pas de deux was created by Konstantin Sergeyev in 1954 for his wife Natalia Dudinskaya for her performances as Nikiya. In Natalia Makarova’s production of La Bayadère, this music is used in the final act as a candle ritual dance for the temple dancers, Gamzatti and Solor.
Pas de Jalousie (aka La Esmeralda Pas de six)
The most famous passage from La Esmeralda is the Pas de Jalousie (commonly known today as the La Esmeralda Pas de six), which was created by Petipa and Drigo for Virginia Zucchi in Petipa’s 1886 revival. As was the custom of the time, a novelty piece was added to showcase the ballerina’s dramatic gifts and the result was a pas de six in the third act entitled the Pas de Jalousie, which replaced Perrot and Pugni’s original pas d’action. In this pas de six, Esmeralda and her friends are invited to dance at a feast to celebrate the engagement of Fleur-de-Lys, only to discover that Fleur-de-Lys’s fiancé is none other than her beloved Phoebus. The pas reflects Esmeralda’s heartbreak, but by the end, her love for dancing completely takes over. The La Esmeralda Pas de six has since remained in the ballet repertoire and is often performed at galas, but the version that is widely danced today is Agrippina Vaganova’s revival from her 1935 production of La Esmeralda. The original pas de six does not contain a variation for Pierre Gringoire; the traditional male variation danced in the pas de six today is set to music from The Talisman and was added to the pas by Vakhtang Chabukiani ca. 1935.
“La Esmeralda Pas de deux”
Despite its title, the so-called La Esmeralda Pas de deux was not created by Petipa, nor does it have anything at all to do with Perrot’s original full length version of the ballet. It has been widely believed that this pas de deux was created by Petipa in his final 1899 revival, but contrary to popular belief, that is not the case. The music is a pastiche of various pieces by Cesare Pugni, Riccardo Drigo and Romualdo Marceno:
- Entrée/Adage – a supplemental piece by Drigo for Petipa’s 1887 revival of his 1886 ballet The King’s Command, or The Pupils of Dupré.
- Male variation – the music of the scene Reverie in Act 1, scene 2 of La Esmeralda, in which Esmeralda spells out the name of her beloved Phoebus with large cut-out letters.
- Female variation – a variation by Romualdo Marenco from his ballet Sieba, or The Sword of Wodan, which premièred at La Scala in 1878.
- Coda – a general dance from Act 2 of The Pharaoh’s Daughter.
The so-called La Esmeralda Pas de deux was originally created by Nicolas Beriosov for his ill-fated, short-lived 1954 production of La Esmeralda for the London Festival Ballet. The only legacy from this ill-fated production was a pas de deux added by Beriosov to the first act, which eventually became a staple of the gala and competition circuit. Somehow, this pas de deux found its way into the repertories of various Russian companies, likely via student performances.
After its initial creation, the so-called La Esmeralda Pas de deux went through several versions throughout the mid to late Soviet-era. The most famous and common version that is widely performed today was choreographed by English choreographer Ben Stevenson.
The female variation (aka the so-called “Tambourine variation”) has an interesting history. It is from the ballet Sieba, or The Sword of Wodan, which was composed by Romualdo Marceno and choreographed by Luigi Manzotti for the Ballet of Teatro alla Scala in 1878. Virginia Zucchi made in her début in Sieba in 1883 for her début performance in Paris and there seems to have been a variation from the ballet that became one of her favourites. It is the variation that is used as the female variation in the so-called La Esmeralda Pas de deux. Zucchi likely performed this variation from Sieba across Europe and then brought it with her to Saint Petersburg and possibly performed it in La Esmeralda. The variation lived on and after the 1917 revolution, Lyubov Egorova fled to the west, settling in Paris, where she became a renowned teacher. Egorova taught the Sieba variation to her students, including Ethéry Pagava and Muriel Belmondo, who have passed it onto their students, most notably, Toni Candeloro. The choreography taught by Egorova is not the standard choreography widely danced today in the so-called La Esmeralda Pas de deux, but it is uncertain if it is the choreography that was danced by Zucchi.
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- Dolin, A. (1966) The Sleeping Ballerina: The Story of Olga Spessivtzeva. UK, London: Frederick Muller Ltd
- Guest, Ivor (1977) The Divine Virgina: A Biography of Virginia Zucchi. New York, US: Marcel Dekker, Inc.
- Guest, Ivor (1985) Jules Perrot: Master of the Romantic Ballet. London, UK: Dance Books Ltd
- Kschessinskaya, Matilda, H.S.H. The Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky (1960) Dancing in Petersburg: the Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinska. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd
- Legat, Nikolai (1939) Ballet Russe: Memoirs of Nikolai Legat. London, UK: Methuen
- Naughtin, Matthew (2014) Ballet Music: A Handbook. Lanham, Maryland, US: Rowman & Littefield
- Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd