Ondine, or The Naiad and the Fisherman

Romantic Ballet in three acts and five scenes
Music by Cesare Pugni
Libretto by Jules Perrot
Décor by Andrei Roller (Scenes 1, 3, 4 & 5) and Heinrich Wagner (Scenes 2 & 6)

World Première
22nd June 1843
Her Majesty’s Theatre, London
Choreography by Jules Perrot

Original 1843 Cast
Fanny Cerrito

Jules Perrot

Marie Guy-Stéphan

Saint Petersburg Première
11th February [O.S. 30th Janaury] 1851
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre

Original 1851 Cast
Carlotta Grisi

Première of Petipa’s first revival
7th November [O.S. 27th October] 1874
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre

Original 1874 Cast
Eugenia Sokolova

Pavel Gerdt

Alexandra Kemmerer

Première of Petipa’s final revival
2nd October [O.S. 20th Septmber] 1892
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1892 Cast
Varvara Nikitina

Pavel Gerdt

Marie Petipa

Ondine, a beautiful naiad, falls in love with the mortal fisherman, Matteo after he catches her in his net and pulls her ashore. Matteo, however, is engaged to the beautiful Giannina, but is inflamed in the naiad’s passionate love and Ondine asks Hydrola, the Queen of the Sea to allow her to become human to be with her beloved.

Fanny Cerrito as Ondine (1843)
Fanny Cerrito as Ondine (1843)

Ondine was one of the many creations by Jules Perrot and Cesare Pugni during their tenure at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London and was created as a vehicle for one of the five greatest Romantic ballerinas – the Italian Prima Ballerina Fanny Cerrito. The London season of 1843 was one of the most successful and highlights of Cerrito’s career because it saw not only the creation of Ondine, but a famous pas de deux she danced with Fanny Elssler. Cerrito was a favourite of the London audiences; she had previously enjoyed two successful appearances in the English capital in 1840 and 1841 and returned in May 1843 after a series of successful performances in her native Italy.  For her return, Perrot and Pugni would create a new ballet for her that would become one of her most famous signature pieces. Diving once again into the world of the supernatural, the new ballet would be Ondine, based on the story of a naiad, a maiden of the sea, who falls in love with a mortal man, who is already betrothed to a mortal woman.

The ballet was premièred at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London on the 22nd June 1843 and was a huge success, with Cerrito dazzling the audience. Perrot’s tenure as Ballet Master in London came to an end in 1848 after nearly a decade of staging many acclaimed and successful works and by 1849, he was serving as Premier Maître de Ballet to the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres. Pugni followed Perrot to Russia, where the composer was given the post of official Ballet Composer. Like most European theatres of that time, Her Majesty’s Theatre in London only produced ballets as one or two-act diversions between scenes of operas, but the opera houses of Russia devoted entire evenings exclusively to ballet. In light of this, Perrot staged many of his works that had been mounted previously in London in elaborately expanded editions for the Saint Petersburg stage, requiring not only that Perrot add and embellish his original dances and mise-en-scène, but also that Pugni expand his scores.

Jules Perrot as Matteo and Fanny Cerrito as Ondine - the Entrance of Ondine (1843)
Lithograph of Jules Perrot as Matteo and Fanny Cerrito as Ondine – the Entrance of Ondine (1843)

in Russia
Like nearly all ballets and operas of that time, irregardless of critical acclamation and/or financial success, Ondine faded quickly from the repertoires of most European opera houses, but it found a permanent home in Russia. Perrot’s Saint Petersburg staging differed vastly from his original London staging, with only about a sixth of the 1843 version being retained. Pugni extensively revised his score, composing many new musical numbers and the libretto underwent change. The ballet was expanded from two acts to three acts and was even given a new title – it was now called The Naiad and the Fisherman. One prime example of a change made to the libretto was the ending, most likely by the influence of Carlotta Grisi, who danced the title role in the 1851 production. In the original 1843 London production, the ballet ended with Ondine sacrificing herself in favour of Matteo and Giannina’s happiness, primarily because she was unable to physically adapt to life as a mortal and accepted the chance to be rescued from death. Matteo and Giannina were happily reunited and Ondine resumed her naiad form and returned to the sea forever, never to see her beloved again. The 1851 staging, however, ended on a different note in favour of Ondine – when Ondine returned to the sea as a naiad, Matteo followed her into the water and drowned. The ballet ended with Ondine and the drowned Matteo kneeling before Hydrola, the Queen of the Naiads, who blessed their union, while Giannina was seen trying in vain to reach Matteo, but was blocked by a wall of water that rose out of a fountain.

Perrot’s 1851 staging of the newly renamed ballet, The Naiad and the Fisherman was met with great success in Saint Petersburg. On the 23rd July [O.S. 11th July] 1851, a special one-act performance of the ballet was given  at Peterhof Palace for the name day of the Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, daughter of Tsar Nicholas I. For this performance, a stage was erected above the waters of the lake of the Ozerky Pavilion.

The performance of The Naiad and the Fisherman at Peterhof Palace (1851)
The performance of The Naiad and the Fisherman at Peterhof Palace (1851)

Following Perrot’s departure from Russia, Petipa later went onto stage two revivals of The Naiad and the Fisherman. His first revival was staged for Eugenia Sokolova in 1874 and in this revival, he revised the entire ballet, with Ludwig Minkus composing new music numbers. Petipa’s final revival of The Naiad and the Fisherman was staged for Varvara Nikitina, with more musical revisions, this time, by Riccardo Drigo. The revival premièred on the 2nd October [O.S. 20th September] 1892.

The Naiad and the Fisherman was revived for a final time in 1903 by Pugni’s grandson, Alexander Shiryaev, who was second ballet master of the Imperial Theatres at the time. Shiryaev revived his grandfather’s ballet for Anna Pavlova and the revival premièred on the 20th December [O.S. 7th December] 1903. This was to be the final revival of The Naiad and the Fisherman that would be staged for and danced by the Imperial Ballet. Shiryaev revived the ballet again in 1921 for the Leningrad Choreographic Institute (now, the Vaganova Academy) and the ballet was performed for the final time in Saint Petersburg in 1931, after which, it was never performed in Russia again.

Perrot’s version of Ondine was notated by Henri Justament in the 1860s. All that survives of the Imperial Ballet production are two variations from the second act that were notated in Stepanov notation and are part of the Sergeyev Collection. These two variations are those of Tamara Karsavina and her classmate Elena Poliakova.

The Naiad and the Fisherman 
in the 20th Century
Today, the only piece associated with Petipa’s revival of The Naiad and the Fisherman is a variation that Riccardo Drigo composed for Anna Johansson in Petipa’s 1892 revival, which is traditionally performed today in the Paquita Grand Pas Classique. It has also appeared in 20th century productions of The Little Humpbacked Horse in the Underwater scene of the final act, in which Ivanushka and the Humpbacked Horse travel to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to retrieve the Tsar Maiden’s lost ring.

Variation for Anna Johansson, composed by Drigo (1892)

Anna Pavlova as Ondine (1903)
Anna Pavlova as Ondine (1903)

The Naiad and the Fisherman was one of Anna Pavlova’s favourite ballets and as part of her company’s repertoire, she danced a short pas d’action entitled Ondine, which was inspired by the full-length ballet. However, Pavlova did not use any of Pugni’s music or any of the musical additions by Drigo or Minkus for her Ondine pas d’action. Instead, she used a number from Alfredo Catalani’s 1880 opera Elda.

In 1958, Sir Frederick Ashton created a brand new version of Ondine to music by Hans Werner Henze and a libretto that was a much more faithful adaptation of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novella for Dame Margot Fonteyn. Ashton’s Ondine premièred on the 27th October 1958 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Other original cast members included Michael Somes as Prince Palemon, Julia Farron as Berta and Alexander Grant as Tirrenio.

In 1984, Shiryaev’s student, Pyotr Gusev staged a suite of extracts from The Naiad and the Fisherman that he claimed to be Perrot’s original choreography for a gala performance held at the Kremlin in Moscow in honour of his 80th birthday. Gusev claimed that he remembered the choreography for the ballet and was able to distinguish the passages that derived from Perrot’s original version.

In 2006, Pierre Lacotte choreographed and staged a new version of Perrot and Pugni’s ballet under the original title of Ondine for the Mariinsky Ballet. The production was based on the original two-act 1843 London production, though it included some musical numbers from the Saint Petersburg productions, including a pas de deux that Riccardo Drigo composed for Anna Pavlova in Shiryaev’s 1903 revival. Lacotte’s Ondine premièred at the Mariinsky Theatre on the 16th March 2006, but the production has not been staged and performed for some time.

Anna Pavlova as Ondine and Georgy Kyaksht as Matteo (1903)
Anna Pavlova as Ondine and Georgy Kyaksht as Matteo (1903)

Pas de l’Ombre

The Pas de l’Ombre (aka the Shadow Dance) is the most famous passage from The Naiad and the Fisherman, in which Ondine plays with her shadow. In the original 1843 production, Ondine first discovered her shadow after becoming mortal and stepping onto the shore in the moonlight. At first, she believed her shadow to be a rival for Matteo’s affections, but when discovering what it really was, she became delighted and danced with it on the moonlit shore. In the first act of Ashton’s Ondine, the choreographer pays homage to Perrot with his own version of the Shadow Dance. Ashton even owned an oil painting of Fanny Cerrito in an arabesque pose from Perrot’s original Pas de l’Ombre.

Lithograph of Fanny Cerrito as Ondine in the Pas de l'Ombre (1843)
Lithograph of Fanny Cerrito as Ondine in the Pas de l’Ombre (1843)

Related pages

Photo gallery


  • Guest, Ivor (1985) Jules Perrot: Master of the Romantic Ballet. London, UK: Dance Books Ltd
  • Werner, Henze, Hans (1959) Ondine: Diary of a Ballet. (Translated edition, 2003), Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd
  • Manchester, P. W. Liner note for the LP record “Homage to Pavlova” (CSA 2232). Decca Records, 1974
  • Mariinsky Ballet: Theatre program from Ondine. Mariinsky Theatre, 2006

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.