Ballet fantastique in four acts
Music by Jacque Offenbach and Ludwig Minkus
26th November 1860
Salle Le Peletier, Paris
Choreography by Marie Taglioni
Original 1860 Cast
Ismail Bey, Emir
The Diamond Fairy
The Pearl Fairy
The Flower Fairy
The Harvest Fairy
Première of Petipa’s revival
6th January 1874
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, Saint Petersburg
Original 1874 Cast
The Diamond Fairy
The evil fairy Hamza has been turned into an ugly woman for previous misdeeds and will only recover her beauty when somebody kisses her. However, nobody wants to kiss such an ugly creature, so in order to attract young men, Hamza kidnaps the Maharajah’s daughter Farfalla. The young Prince Djalma discovers her and falls in love with the kidnapped princess. Hamza then loses her temper with Farfalla and transforms her into a butterfly. However, Hamza’s wand is stolen, she loses her powers and returns Farfalla to her father. When Prince Djalma attempts to kiss Farfalla, Hamza intercedes, receiving the kiss instead, and is transformed back into a beautiful woman. In response, she turns Farfalla back into a butterfly and puts a spell on Djalma so she may marry him. During the wedding procession, however, Farfalla’s wings are burned and the spell is broken, restoring her to her human form. Hamza is furious, but her sister fairies side with the lovers and turn Hamza into a statue. Farfalla and Djalma are reunited and married in the enchanted Fairy Kingdom.
Le Papillon was originally choreographed by the great Romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni in 1860. Taglioni created this ballet for her star pupil, the French ballerina Emma Livry, for whom she famously revived her father’s original version of La Sylphide in 1858.
The ballet premiered at the Paris Opéra on the 26th November 1860 with Emma Livry as Farfalla, Louis Mérante as Prince Djalma and Louise Marquet as Hamza. The ballet was met with a mixed response, but Emma Livry’s performance was a huge success with the critics praising her “exquisite charm” and “rare audacity”.
Emma Livry, however, was not destined to enjoy a career as long and successful as that of her teacher’s. In November 1862, tragedy struck when during rehearsals for the opera La Muette de Portici, Livry was horrifically burned when her costume caught alight on one of the theatre gas lamps. This tragic accident ended not only her career, but her life. Nine months later, Emma Livry died on the 26thJuly 1863, aged 20. The Paris Opéra and the Paris balletomanes went into mourning and thousands crowded the streets on the day of her funeral, which was held at the Church of Notre-Dame de Lorette on the 29th July. Among those who attended were Alphonse Gautier, Secretary-General to the Ministry of the Emperor’s Household and Fine Arts, Émile Perrin, Director of the Opéra, Théophile Gautier, Alexandre Dumas fils, the ballerina Carolina Rosati and of course, Marie Taglioni. Emma Livry is buried in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris; her grave is besides those of Gaétan Vestris (father of Auguste Vestris), Théophile Gautier and Vaslav Nijinsky.
In 1874, Petipa revived Le Papillon for his star ballerina Ekaterina Vazem. Petipa extended the ballet from two acts to four and Ludwig Minkus composed brand new music for Offenbach’s score.
Vazem gives an account of Petipa’s revival in her memoirs:
At the beginning of 1874, I appeared for the first time in a grand ballet produced by Petipa especially for me – The Butterfly. The story of the ballet, written by the Parisian ballet librettist St-Georges, was not, God knows, especially engaging. At the time this ballet was produced, Petipa probably took into account that a ballet The Butterfly, to the same scenario but with music by Offenbach, had been performed successfully in Paris by the ballerina Emma Livry, who was burned on the stage of the Grand Opéra during a dress rehearsal of the opera La Muette de Portici. Minkus wrote the music for The Butterfly here; Petipa produced very many dances for this ballet, and in general they were interesting. Here, incidentally, in the ‘Dances of the Butterflies’, I had a variation to the music of a waltz by Venzano, which at the time enjoyed great popularity. The celebrated Adelina Patti sang it at the Italian opera in Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix. In this variation, which began with temps requiring elevation, I made two pirouettes renversées on pointe and stopped, as they say in ballet, à la seconde (in second position). This was new. Before that [Henriette] Dor did the same pirouettes in Le Corsaire, which astonished everyone, but only on demi-pointe, which was much easier. The variation ended with my jumping on one pointe, which no ballerina had ever done before. The balletomanes immediately christened this pas the ‘Vazem Variation’, similar to the Ferraris, Dor, [Adele] Grantzow Variations, etc., already in existence. As regards participants in the performance, The Butterfly was well produced. [Nikolai] Golts, Lev Ivanov and Alexandre Bogdanov played its acting roles, and all the best soloists performed the dances, led by [Mathilda] Madaeva, [Lubov] Radina, [Felix] Kschessinsky and of course [Pavel] Gerdt, who excelled in his ethereal variation in the ‘Dances of the Butterflies’. The character dances were very effective: Persian, Malabar, and especially the dance of the Circassian women, performed by the corps de ballet armed with lances.
In 1976, Pierre Lacotte staged his own version of Le Papillon for the Paris Opera Ballet, which he later staged for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet in 1979. The most famous piece associated with the ballet today is Lacotte’s staging of the Le Papillon Pas de deux, which the Mariinsky Ballet has often danced in gala performances.
- Guest, Ivor (1953) The Ballet of the Second Empire. Middletown, Connectivut, US: Pitman & Wesleyan
- Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd