Ballet pantomime in two acts and four scenes
Music by Adolphe Adam
Libretto by Eugène Desmares
Décor for the 1880 Saint Petersburg production designed by Heinrich Wagner
21st September 1836
Salle Le Peletier, Paris
Choreography by Filippo Taglioni
Original 1836 Cast
Fleur des Champs
The Nymph of the Danube
Saint Petersburg Premiére
1st January 1838 [O.S. 20th December 1837]
Imperial Kamenny Bolshoi Theatre
Original 1837 Cast
Fleur des Champs
Première of Petipa’s revival
8th March [O.S. 24th February] 1880
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Original 1880 Cast
The Daughter of the Danube
The young Rudolph, equerry to the Baron Willibald, is in love with a mysterious young girl, Fleur des Champs, who is none other than the Daughter of the Danube, a water nymph from the River Danube. She lives in Baron Willibald’s “Valley of the Flowers” with her adoptive mother Irmemgarda and reciprocates Rudolph’s love. However, when Baron Willibald decides to seek a wife from among the maidens who live in the Valley of the Flowers, he chooses Fleur des Champs. When she rejects him, the Baron uses his authority to make her marry him, but Fleur des Champs throws herself into the Danube, returning to her father. Rudolph goes mad with grief and follows his beloved into the river, descending to the underwater world of Father Danube. When the river god acknowledges the love of his daughter and Rudolph, he restores Rudolph’s sanity and the lovers ascend back to the surface.
After the success of Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide in 1832, the career of his daughter Marie was at its peak. That same year, her father created another ballet for her, Natalie, ou La Laitière suisse, a ballet with a different setting than that of La Sylphide as it did not touch on the supernatural. By the end of the year, Marie Taglioni had conquered Paris. Her repertoire continued to grow and in 1836, her father would return to the world of the supernatural to create another new ballet for her. This new work, however, was created during a time when outside of the theatre, Marie’s personal life was going through changes. Her unhappy marriage to the Comte Gilbert de Voisins, whom she had married in London in 1832, finally came to an end in 1835, but before long, Marie discovered that she was pregnant and a knee injury put her dancing on hold. She later met and fell in love with a young writer Éugene Desmares and they are said to have become lovers after meeting at a masked ball in January 1836. While Marie awaitied the birth of her child and recovered from her knee injury, Desmares wrote the scenario for the new ballet and after the world première of Jean Coralli’s Le Diable boiteux on the 1st June, Filippo Taglioni was finally able to start working on the choreography and staging. Commissioned to compose the music was Adolphe Adam, who, at that time, was a fresh face at the Paris Opéra. Prior to this commission, he had composed over thirty operas in Paris and two ballets in Paris and London. After Marie gave birth to a daughter, she returned to the stage on the 10th August 1836, performing in La Sylphide. The new ballet was to be called La Fille du Danube (aka The Daughter of the Danube). Returning to the supernatural, Marie was to embody another type of maiden – she had previously embodied the undead as the ghost of Abbess Helena in Ballet of the Nuns and then a maiden of the air when she danced the Sylph in La Sylphide. Now, she was to become a maiden of the water – a water nymph.
Unlike its two predecessors, however, La Fille du Danube presented a story with a lighter tone, in which a young water nymph, Fleur des Champs, who was found on the shores of the River Danube as a baby, is raised by mortals and falls in love with a young mortal man, Rudolph. When an unwanted suitor chooses her as his bride, she jumps into the Danube, returning to her father’s kingdom. Rudolph, driven mad by grief, follows Fleur des Champs into the water and is tested by the other nymphs, but passes when he recognises his beloved among them. Following the typical fairy tale ending instead of the usual romantic ending, the lovers are reunited and ascend back to the surface. Stories of encounters of maidens of the water and mortal men were commonly found around Europe, with the most famous being Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid, published in the same year that La Fille du Danube premièred. In Greek mythology, the famous maidens of the water were the sirens, the Oceanids and Nereids of the sea, and the naiads of the rivers and lakes. In the myth of Hylas and the water nymphs, Hylas, a companion, servant and lover of Heracles, accompanied him on the Argo. When the Argonauts reached Pegae, Mysia, Hylas was sent to find fresh water and he discovered a pond that was inhabited by naiads. He fell in love with them and they lured him into the water where he disappeared and was never seen again.
One of the famous European legends is that of Melusine, a nixie (fresh-water spirit), who was half woman and half serpent or fish, much like a mermaid. According to the legend, Melusine was discovered in the forest by the knight Raymond of Poitou, who fell in love with her and proposed marriage. She accepted his proposal, but on one condition – that he must never enter her chamber on a Saturday. Eventually, he broke his promise and saw her in half woman, half serpent or fish form as she was bathing and as a consequence of the broken oath, Melusine left her husband and fled the kingdom. For La Fille du Danube, the mythical water maiden that served as the inspiration for the ballet’s plot was the Donauweibchen (the Danube River Nymph), a legendary water maiden who helped fishermen to catch a good catch and warned them of floods; a water maiden much friendlier than many of her fellow European counterparts.
Although La Fille du Danube allowed the lovers a happy ending, it was not devoid of dramatic moments, the most notable being the madness of Rudolph. A parallel to the mad scene in Giselle, only in this case, the victim of madness is male rather than female and it is not grief caused by betrayal that makes him to lose his reason, but rather grief caused by loss. When the Baron Willibald chooses Fleur des Champs as his bride, rather than marry him, she throws herself into the Danube (Petipa may have later referenced this in The Pharaoh’s Daughter when Princess Aspicia throws herself into the Nile to escape the King of Nubia). Thinking his love to be dead, Rudolph goes mad with grief and just as he is about to throw himself into the river, the spirit of Fleur des Champs suddenly appears, but she vanishes at the approach of the Baron, who tries to restore his equerry’s reason with the help of a girl dressed to resemble Fleur-des-Champs. However, the grief-stricken Rudolph is not fooled and plunges into the Danube. What followed the mad scene was the ballet’s “white act”, which took place in the underwater kingdom of the River Danube. Rudolph finds himself surrounded by water nymphs, led by the Nymph of the Danube, who has long been watching over Fleur des Champs. The water nymphs prove to be different from the wilis, though they still have a deed to carry out; rather than drowning him, they test Rudolph’s love for Fleur des Champs. Cladded in veils, the nymphs attempt to entice Rudolph with their charms, but he repulses them all and recognises his beloved, who is now in water nymph form, among them and swears his love only to her, passing the test. Unlike James and the Sylph, Rudolph and Fleur des Champs are accepted as a couple by both the mortal world and the supernatural world and are allowed to leave the fairyland of the Danube and return to the surface, where their happy ever after awaits them.
La Fille du Danube had its world première on the 21st September 1836 at the Salle Le Peletier, however, the ballet was not met with the same success as La Sylphide. While diehard Taglioni fan, Janin called the ballet “the sequel to La Sylphide“, other critics dismissed it as “a work of little merit”. The newspaper Moniteur called it “boring and inconsequential nonsense, a jumble of worn-out, commonplace stuff.” Frédéric Soulié of the Presse wrote, “M. Taglioni has never produced anything more commonplace… [He] is following the method of dressmakers and political and literary geniuses by applying the maxim that tells us that there is nothing new but what has been forgotten.” The critics found the plot dull and boring and it was only occasionally relieved by Taglioni’s choreography and they all agreed that Marie Taglioni and Adam’s score were the ballet’s only saving grace; one critic described Adam’s score as “full of freshness and grace”. Had Marie not danced in it and had Adam not been the composer, the ballet would probably have been a complete disaster. Despite not receiving a successful reception at its world première, La Fille du Danube remained active in the Paris Opéra repertoire for some time. On the 22nd October 1838, Fanny Elssler made her début as Fleur des Champs and on the 26th July 1840, Marie Taglioni performed in the ballet’s second act for her benefit performance. La Fille due Danube was brought to London when it was staged at Drury Lane by the English dancer and Ballet Master George Gilbert. It made its London début on the 21st November 1837, with Gilbert’s wife, the Prima Ballerina Eliza Ballin as Fleur des Champs.
La Fille du Danube in Russia
The following year in 1837, Taglioni and his daughter traveled to Saint Petersburg, where Marie Taglioni made her Russian début in La Sylphide on the 28th September [O.S. 6th September] 1837 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kammeny Theatre. Her Saint Petersburg début was a huge success, with the Russian balletomanes and critics becoming completely enchanted by the famous ballerina. That same year, her father revived and restaged La Fille du Danube for Marie’s benefit performance on the 1st January 1838 [O.S. 20th December 1837], in which she was partnered by Nikolai Goltz, who danced Rudolph. Unlike Taglioni’s other works, the Russians were unfamiliar with La Fille du Danube and the reception in the Imperial capital was very different from what the ballet had experienced had its world première. The Saint Petersburg production enjoyed a very successful reception and the critic from the Severnaya pchela wrote:
The ballet presented yesterday, La Fille du Danube, had a marvellous success. The balletmaster Mr Taglioni, the creator of the ballet, who produced it on our stage, was called for after the first and second acts. Mlle Taglioni was never so captivating as on this evening. The calls for her were endless; we lost count of them.”
- Quoted in Severnaya pchela, 1837, No. 291 [22 Dec.], p. 1162
La Fille du Danube was so well-received in Saint Petersburg that it was performed on each of the dozen nights of ballet that followed in the next month. Marie Taglioni performed in La Fille du Danube for the final time in St Petersburg in 1842, a week before her final performance in Russia. La Fille du Danube was to be one of the two ballets by Filippo Taglioni to survive in Russia following the departures of both the Ballet Master and his daughter from the country, the other being La Sylphide.
In 1880, Tsar Alexander II, who had seen Marie Taglioni in the ballet, requested for La Fille du Danube to be revived. Although reviving this particular ballet went against Petipa’s better judgement, he could not ignore the wishes of the Tsar and set to work on reviving La Fille du Danube for the benefit performance of Ekaterina Vazem. For this revival, Petipa included new musical additions and revisions by Ludwig Minkus and the revival was premièred at the Imperial Bolshoi Kammeny Theatre on 8th March [O.S. 24th February] 1880, with Vazem as the now nameless Daughter of the Danube and Pavel Gerdt as Rudolph. Vazem cared little for the ballet, for she considered it to be “flat”, that the heroine’s part was “not the most effective” and even claimed that “the mounting of the ballet looked quite wretched”. However, she acknowledged that the première was met with much enthusiasm from the public and that Gerdt’s performance was “incomparable”.
At the wish of Alexandre II the old ballet ‘La Fille du Danube’ was revived the next season. The tsar had once seen the celebrated Marie Taglioni in it, and wanted to experience that impression of his youth again. ‘La Fille du Danube’, therefore, was a ballet in some sense historical and, in any event, very archaic. [Filippo] Taglioni was its author, not a very gifted balletmaster who produced works exclusively for his celebrated daughter whose artistic charm concealed the weakness of her father’s compositions. Since Taglioni’s time the choreographic art in general, and matters of theatrical production in particular, have made such progress that in the 1880s ‘La Fille du Danube’ could hardly amount to anything particularly interesting. Its story is inspired by the old Austrian legend about Donauweibchen, and concerns the girl water-spirit who lives an earthly life and captivates a young page.
After the powerfully dramatic ballets of Perrot and Petipa it was rather ‘flat’. However Petipa tried to rejuvenate this old piece with new dances, his efforts proved unsuccessful. The ballet had neither scenic effects, to which the audience was accustomed from our balletmaster’s latest works, nor brilliant dances which impressed the public. Adam’s music seemed very antiquated and yielded significantly to his other compositions, especially ‘Giselle’. Moreover, in the old days ‘La Fille du Danube’ on our stage stood out for its luxurious mise-en-scène, whereas in revival, because of the economy introduced by Baron Kister, there could be no thought of luxury in this respect.
The first performance of ‘La Fille du Danube’ in this revival was given as my benefit performance in February 1880. I took the title part, and remember having success with the classical trio in the first act with [Alexandra] Shaposhnikova and [Pavel] Gerdt, and with the waltz to Lanner’s music in the second act, performed with Gerdt. In general, the heroine’s part was not the most effective. In the ‘earthly’ scenes at the beginning of the ballet I had to portray some kind of caricature, all but simple-minded. To Gerdt’s incomparable performance in the role of the page I have already referred. The mounting of the ballet looked quite wretched, For all the minuses of this production, however, the public, perhaps fascinated by the legend of the furore which Taglioni created in ‘La Fille du Danube’, came to the theatre in throngs.”
- From Memoirs of a Ballerina of the St Petersburg Bolshoy Theatre, 1867-1884, Ekaterina Ottovna Vazem, Chapter 11 (quoted in A Century of Russian Ballet, 1810-1910 by Roland John Wiley, 2007)
Since the turn of the 20th century, at least two productions of La Fille du Danube have been staged. In 1996, Paul Chalmer created a new production for the Balletto dell’Arena di Verona and in 2006, Pierre Lacotte created another new production for the Théâtre Colón in Buenos Aires.
- Guest, Ivor (2008) The Romantic Ballet in Paris. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd
- Guest, Ivor (1954) The Romantic Ballet in England. Hampshire, UK: 2014 ed. Dance Books Ltd
- Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet, 1810-1910. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd
- Meisner, Nadine (2019) Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, US: Oxford University Press
Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.