La Sylphide

Romantic Ballet in two acts
Music by Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer

World Première
12th March 1832
Salle Le Peletier, Paris
Choreography by Filippo Taglioni

Original 1832 Cast
The Sylph
Marie Taglioni

James
Joseph Mazilier

Saint Petersburg Première
9th April [O.S. 28th March] 1835
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre

Première of August Bournonville’s staging
28th November 1836
Royal Theatre, Copenhagen
Music by Herman Severin Løvemskiold

Original 1836 Cast
The Sylph
Lucile Grahn

James
August Bournonville

Madge
Carl Fredstrup

Première of Petipa’s revival
19th January [O.S. 7th January] 1892
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1892 Cast
The Sylph
Varvara Nikitina

James
Pavel Gerdt

Plot
Set in Scotland, the young farmer James is preparing to marry his fiancée Effie. However, on the wedding day, a beautiful Sylph, who is in love with James, interrupts the wedding and tempts him with her declarations of love. James’s best friend Gurn, who is in love with Effie, witnesses the encounter and alerts Effie of James’s infidelity, but no one believes him. The old witch Madge arrives at the house and predicts Effie’s future, stating that it is Gurn who Effie will marry, not James. Furious, James throws Madge out, but the Sylph returns and James follows her into the forest, leaving Effie heartbroken and all the guests horrified. The Sylph brings James to her forest glade, where he meets her sister sylphs and she woos him with her love. Madge appears and gives James a scarf, which she has cursed as revenge, and tells James that if he wraps it around the Sylph, her wings will fall off and she will be his forever. The Sylph is taken by the scarf, but when James wraps it around her, her wings fall off and she dies. James watches in grief as the other sylphs carry her away over the treetops and in the distance, the procession for Effie’s wedding to Gurn is seen. James collapses in his grief, as Madge stands triumphant.

La Sylphide - Marie Taglioni as the Sylph - 1832 (3)
Marie Taglioni as the Sylph, lithograph by Alfred Edward Chalon and J. S. Templeton (1832)

History
La Sylphide is one of the most iconic Romantic ballets of all time and plays an important role in the history of ballet in regards to the art form’s development and evolution. After the respective eras of the ballet de cour of the 16th and 17th centuries and the ballet d’action of the 18th century and early 19th century, La Sylphide saw the beginning of the Romantic Ballet.

The idea of La Sylphide was suggested to Filippo Taglioni by the Paris Opéra tenor Adolphe Nourrit while the opera Robert le Diable was still in rehearsals. Nourrit had conceived the idea with Marie Taglioni as the heroine after her successful performance in the Ballet of the Nuns. The Director of the Paris Opéra at the time, Louis Véron was introducing new policies that saw the Opéra adapting to the tastes of the Parisian bourgeois society, which, within the following years, would see the Parisian Ballet become a highly feminised art form ruled by the ballerina, caused by the influence of the Opéra’s wealthy male patrons. Véron was determined to take advantage of Taglioni’s talent and to exploit her other worldly etherealness, but even he could not have seen the ultimate effect that La Sylphide would have on the Paris Opéra for the remainder of the 19th century.

The plot for the new ballet was inspired by French author Charles Nodier’s novella Trilby, ou le Lutin de Argaïl, a fantasy story that Nodier was inspired to write after a trip to Scotland. Nodier’s novella tells the story of the elf Trilby, who is in love with the young Scottish ferrywoman Jeannie, whose home he protects, and lures her away from her fisherman husband Dougal. In order to save Jeannie from the elf, Trilby is exorcised from Dougal and Jeannie’s house by a monk. However, Jeannie is already deeply under the elf’s influence and falls into a deep depression as she becomes torn between common earthly happiness with Dougal and yearnings for the supernatural world, represented by Trilby. Dougal then takes Jeannie on a pilgrimage to the monastery in an attempt to save her from Trilby’s seduction once and for all. During the pilgrimage, she has a religious experience that helps her to find the courage to reject Trilby’s advances in favour of her husband when she meets the elf once more. In spite of this, however, Trilby’s influence over Jeannie is still too strong and she cannot find a balance between the two worlds. In the end, she falls victim to eroticism and the demonic when she throws herself into a freshly dug grave and dies of her injuries before Dougal’s eyes. In his new ballet libretto, Nourrit presented, instead of an elf, a Sylph in love with a young farmer, who lures him away from his mortal fiancée into her forest world where she dwells with her sister sylphs. Instead of a man of God who tries to save the farmer from the Sylph’s clutches, Nourrit presented an evil witch, who sets about destroying the farmer after he publicly humiliates her when she foretells his unfaithfulness to his fiancée. Just like in Nodier’s novella, the mortal’s seduction by the supernatural ultimately destroys him, except rather than the farmer, it is the Sylph who dies and the farmer is doomed to live with what he has lost, especially after he sees that his jilted fiancée has found happiness by marrying another man.

Filippo Taglioni
Filippo Taglioni

Filippo Taglioni found the story charming when Nourrit read it to him on the 23rd October 1831 and within a fortnight, he was already sketching out instructions for the composer. The French composer Jean Schneitzhoeffer was commissioned to compose the score. Born in 1785, the son of an Opéra oboist, Schneitzhoeffer was the composer of seven early 19th century ballets: Proserpine (1818), Le Séducteur de village (1818), Zémire et Azor (1824), Mars et Vénus (1826), L’Orgie (1831), La Sylphide (1832) and La Tempéte (1834). At the time, there were certain customs for composing ballet music scores – music for specific characters, moods and situations,  recurring themes and borrowed music from other pieces. It was still quite a common practice to borrow music from other numbers for a ballet score in Paris in the 1830s, but around the time of the première of La Sylphide, the practice was beginning to drown out across Europe when the composing of original ballet scores began to come into practice. Among the earliest of composers to compose an original ballet score was Cesare Pugni. Although Schneitzhoeffer used borrowed music, his score for La Sylphide is mostly original and is considered his best work. Another important custom for composing music that Schneitzhoeffer followed was meeting the needs of the libretto, which meant composing two types of basic ballet music – dance music for the dancing and dramatic music for the action and mime scenes. However, there was one characteristic of Schneitzhoeffer’s score that differed from the ballet scores of the late 1820s and the early 1830s, which led to one critic describing his music as “too uniformed” – he integrated the dance music and the dramatic music together rather than keeping the two styles distinctively different from one another.

With Filippo Taglioni as choreographer, La Sylphide was to become the platform for a new genre of choreography and style that was an amalgamation of the three genres of the 18th century – the noble, the demi-caractère and the comique. Ballet technique and style was now more virtuoso and physically demanding and Taglioni had choreographed in this style for Ballet of the Nuns to showcase the virtuosa abilities and ethereal, elegant style of his daughter Marie. He would do so again in her new role of the Sylph. Originating the role of James was the Paris Opéra’s Premier Danseur Joseph Mazilier.

Marie Taglioni as the Sylph, lithograph by Alfred Edward Chalon (1832)
Marie Taglioni as the Sylph, lithograph by Alfred Edward Chalon (1832)

La Sylphide made its world première on the 12th March 1832 at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris. The ballet was a huge success and Marie Taglioni’s performance as the Sylph received great acclaim and praise. It was a triumph of Romanticism in ballet; the new age of the Romantic Era officially began and before long, the rest of the ballet world was engulfed in this new era. La Sylphide made its début in London at Covent Garden on the 26th July 1832, with Marie Taglioni as the Sylph, her brother Paul Taglioni as James and Paul’s wife Amalia Galster Taglioni as Effie. The ballet was brought all across Europe in various stagings based on Taglioni’s original production. It made its début in Russia on the 9th April [O.S. 28th March] 1835 when it was staged in a production by Antoine Titus for the Imperial Ballet at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in Saint Petersburg, though the Saint Petersburg balletomanes would have to wait two years before they could see Taglioni in her signature role. After enjoying success with La Sylphide in various European cities, including Berlin and Dublin, Filippo and Marie Taglioni travelled to Saint Petersburg in 1837, where Taglioni staged various works. Marie made her Russian début in La Sylphide on the 18th September [O.S. 6th September] 1837 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre and her performance was a huge success. She would later give her final performance in Russia in the ballet Gerta on the 15th March [O.S. 3rd March] 1842.

Marie Taglioni's costume for the Sylph on display at the Saint Petersburg Theatre Museum (2018)
Marie Taglioni’s costume for the Sylph on display at the Saint Petersburg Theatre Museum (2018)

La Sylphide would continue to tour across Europe and eventually, the world, making its début in America on the 22nd May 1839 in a production by Paul Taglioni that was staged at the Park Theatre in New York City. Taglioni danced the role of James and his wife danced the role of the Sylph.

As well as Marie Taglioni, many more of the great ballerinas of the Romantic Era and pre-Romantic Era would début as the Sylph as the ballet travelled everywhere – Fanny Elssler débuted in the role in Bordeaux in September 1836, Pauline Duverany in London in 1837, Amalia Brugnoli in Florence on the 8th September 1837 and Fanny Cerrito on the 27th January 1841 at La Scala, Milan. Marie Taglioni retired from the stage in 1847 and on the 19th October 1858, the 16 year old Emma Livry made her début with the Paris Opéra in the role of the Sylph. Her performance was hugely successful and the Parisian audiences were captivated by the new star. Taglioni herself attended the performance and she, too, was completely won over by Livry, for the girl reminded her of herself when she was younger. Therefore, Taglioni decided to stay in Paris and teach the young ballerina. Livry would become Taglioni’s protégée and created the role of Farfalla in Taglioni’s two-act ballet Le Papillon, but all hopes for the young Livry enjoying a long and successful career like that of her teacher were brought to an abrupt end by her tragic death in 1863.

Emma Livry as the Sylph (1862)
Emma Livry as the Sylph (1862)

In 1892, Petipa staged his own revival of Taglioni and Schneitzhoeffer’s La Sylphide for the Imperial Ballet in the year of the ballet’s sixtieth anniversary. Petipa worked on his revival of La Sylphide with Christian Johansson, who had been one of Marie Taglioni’s last partners. According to his student Lyubov Egorova, Johansson taught his students steps that had been performed by Taglioni and it is possible that Petipa used these steps for his revival. Varvara Nikitina was cast as the Sylph and Pavel Gerdt was cast as James. Riccardo Drigo revived and arranged Schneitzhoeffer’s music score and composed some new music numbers, including a new Pas des Sylphides, a new Danse écossaise, a new variation for Varvara Nikitina and a new adage for Nikitina and Gerdt. Petipa’s revival of La Sylphide premièred at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre on the 19th January [O.S. 7th January] 1892. Following the 1917 Revolution, Vladimir Ponomarev staged a revival of Petipa’s staging for the State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet in Petrograd, which premièred on the 9th April 1922. Three years later, another revival of Petipa’s staging was staged at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow by Vasily Tikhomirov. Tikhomirov’s revival premièred on the 2nd February 1925, starring Tikhomirov as James and Ekaterina Geltser as the Sylph. Only one piece associated with Petipa’s staging of La Sylphide is still performed today and it is the variation for Varvara Nikitina that was composed by Drigo. This harp variation is commonly used in the Paquita Grand Pas Classique as the variation for Paquita.

It was reported that Taglioni’s La Sylphide was notated by Henri Justamantbut Justamant’s notation scores for the ballet have been misplaced and their whereabouts remains unknown. In 1972, Pierre Lacotte, a student of Lyubov Egorova, choreographed and staged a recreation of Taglioni and Schneitzhoeffer’s La Sylphide for the Paris Opera Ballet. Lacotte’s La Sylphide was originally and premièred as a film starring Lacotte’s wife, the Prima Ballerina Ghislaine Thesmar as the Sylph. It was later transferred to the stage in a production that included the original décor and costume designs from the 1832 production.

August Bournonville
August Bournonville

Today, the version of La Sylphide that is well-known and danced worldwide is that of the great Danish Ballet Master August Bournonville. Born in Copenhagen on the 21st August 1805, Bournonville trained under his father, the French Ballet Master Antoine Bournonville and the Italian Ballet Master Vincenzo Galeotti at the Royal Danish Ballet. In 1820, he travelled with his father to Paris, where he further studied under Auguste Vestris and from 1824 to 1830, he was engaged as a dancer at the Paris Opéra and danced with Marie Taglioni. In 1830, Bournonville returned to Copenhagan to become Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Ballet, but kept in touch with the international ballet world, especially the activities in Paris. In 1834, Bournonville visited Paris again and on the 23rd March, he attended a performance of Taglioni’s La Sylphide, with Marie Taglioni as the Sylph. However, Bournonville did not react kindly to the ballet, criticising the fact that in the second act, the story was almost completely sacrificed for the purpose of showcasing Marie Taglioni’s bravura technique and the elaborate stage effects of the Sylphs flying across the stage and perched in the tree tops. Nevertheless, he was deeply touched by the ballet’s story and sought to bring La Sylphide to his native Denmark.

Bournonville had hoped to stage his own revival of Taglioni’s version in Copenhagen, but he abandoned the plan when the Paris Opéra demanded too high a price for Schneitzhoeffer’s music score. In the end, Bournonville decided to create his own version of La Sylphide from scratch, using the same storyline to a new music score and new choreography of his own making. For the music score, Bournonville sought the help of a Danish composer and found a suitable candidate in the 20 year old Herman Severin Løvenskiold, who had studied at Giuseppe Siboni’s music academy and had gained attention when he privately performed piano for the King and Queen of Denmark. In 1835, he first showcased his feeling for dance music when he published a set of Hofbaldanse (Court Ball Dances). Bournonville commissioned Løvenskiold to compose the score for his new ballet, which was done over a five-month period. In order to keep the story flowing, Bournonville made some changes to the libretto, including the addition of a new scene in Act 2 in which Gurn finds James’s hat. Madge appears and persuades Gurn not to tell anyone about the hat and pushes him into Effie’s arms. To create the role of the Sylph, Bournonville chose his favourite student Lucile Grahn, one of the great ballerinas of the Romantic Era. Born on the 30th June 1819 in Copenhagen, Grahn trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and made her stage début in 1834.

Lucile Grahn as the Sylph in Bournonville's "La Sylphide" - lithography by Emilius Ditlev Baerentzen (1836)
Lucile Grahn as the Sylph in Bournonville’s “La Sylphide” – lithography by Emilius Ditlev Baerentzen (1836)

Bournonville’s La Sylphide made its world première at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen on the 28th March 1836, with Grahn as the Sylph, Bournonville as James and Carl Fredstrup as Madge. It would not be until the 20th century that Bournonville’s La Sylphide would be seen elsewhere in the world when a revival was staged at the Théâtre de l’Empire in Paris by Harold Lander for the Grand Ballet du Marquis Cuevas on the 9th December 1953. Since then, the ballet has been presented all over the world, with some of its most famous international productions staged by renowned Bournonville dancers such as Lander, Elsa Marianne von Rosen, Erik Bruhn, Hans Brenaa, Peter Schaufuss and Johan Kobborg.

 

Sources

  • Smith, Marian/Various (2012) La Sylphide: Paris 1832 and beyond, Great Britain: Dance Books Ltd
  • Guest, Ivor (1954) The Romantic Ballet in England. Hampshire, UK: 2014 ed. Dance Books Ltd
  • Kant, Marion/Various (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Ballet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet 1810-1910. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd