Ballet in four acts
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
17th December [O.S. 5th December] 1886
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1886 Cast
Phoebus de Châteaupers
Première of Petipa’s final revival
21st November [O.S. 9th November] 1899
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1899 Cast
Phoebus de Châteaupers
Inspired 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 originally created as a one-act ballet by Jules Perrot and Cesare Pugni for the Ballet of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. The ballet’s première on the 9th March 1844 starred the great Carlotta Grisi in the title role and Perrot in the role of Pierre Gringoire. However, like many western ballets created at the time, La Esmeralda eventually disappeared from the London repertoire and it was only when Perrot and Pugni brought the ballet to Russia that it found a permanent home. 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 and Pugni’s 1849 Saint Petersburg revival of La Esmeralda was staged especially for Fanny Elssler, but it was Petipa’s 1886 revival for the great Virginia Zucchi that became the definitive version of the ballet. With Riccardo Drigo refurbishing Pugni’s score, Petipa expanded La Esmeralda from three acts to four acts and added his final touches when he revived the ballet again in 1899 for Matilda Kschessinskaya.
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.
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 Soviet Ballet Master Vladimir 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?
- Contemporary accounts of Virginia Zucchi’s performances as Esmeralda state that her acting was so fascinating that she shed real tears during the ballet’s most tragic moments, such as when Esmeralda is being led to her execution in the final act.
- Esmeralda was one of Matilda Kschessinskaya’s favourite roles. At the age of 14, Kschessinskaya saw Virginia Zucchi as Esmeralda and expresses in her memoirs how the great ballerina was a huge inspiration to her.
- 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 Pas de deux for Nikiya and the Slave in many modern productions of La Bayadère. In 1954, Konstantin Sergeyev utilised this music to choreograph a new pas de deux for his wife Natalia Dudinskaya for her performances as Nikiya and many modern productions performed today have retained this pas. 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 six
The famous La Esmeralda Pas de six 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 second or third act, 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. Zucchi’s performances as Esmeralda became legendary in Russia and the role became among the most coveted of parts for her. 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.
The role of Esmeralda makes not only technical demands, but demands for strong dramatic/acting abilities, something that Zucchi was very celebrated for. However, the role also required a personal approach, which Petipa explained to Kschessinskaya when, at 20 years old, she first asked him to allow her to dance the role. Kschessinskaya gives an account in her memoirs of this event:
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.
Zucchi had experienced heartbreak with her first love, something that, ironically, Kschessinskaya would later experience.
“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 Genia Melikova and Nicholas Beriosov in 1954 for their full-length production of La Esmeralda for the London Festival Ballet. The production starred Natalie Krassovska as Esmeralda, John Gilpin as Pierre Gringoire, Oleg Briansky as Phœbus de Châteaupers and Sir Anton Dolin as Claude Frollo. Unfortunately, the production was not a success and was mercilessly panned by critics and balletomanes alike. The only legacy from this ill-fated staging of La Esmeralda was a pas de deux added by Melikova and 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.
- 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 Kschessinskaya. 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