Ballet fantastique in four acts
Music by Ludwig Minkus
Libretto by Sergei Khudekov and Marius Petipa
Décor by Mikhail Bocharov (Acts 1 and 4), Matvei Shishkov (Act 2) and Heinrich Wagner (Act 3)
Costumes by Pavel Grigorev
11th February [O.S. 29th January] 1878
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, Saint Petersburg
Original 1878 Cast
The Vampire Butterfly
Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro was one of several ballets that Petipa created for Eugenia Sokolova, who rose the fame in the late 1870s and was inspired by the troubles experienced on a daily basis in the Balkans during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. The war was caused by a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Christians coalition that was led by the Russian Empire and was composed of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. The result was victory for the Russian-led coalition and the Ottomans were pushed all the way back to the gates of Constantinople. Roxana was created during the last months of the war and premièred weeks before the Russians and their allies declared victory on the 3rd March 1878 when the Treaty of San Stefano was signed and all hostilities were ended, reducing Ottoman power and granting independence to Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. One could argue that the ballet was something of an allegory reflecting the victory of the Russian Empire over its greatest rival; there was certainly patriotism behind its creation.
Roxana seems to have been a successor of The Beauty of Lebanon, which was also based on the conflicts of a war (the 1860 civil conflict in Mount Lebanon and Damascus), but was a story of fantasy and romance. Unlike The Beauty of Lebanon, Roxana reflects on the conflicts between the two sides of their respective wars through a love triangle involving a young woman native to the country in which the ballet is set and two suitors, one from each conflicting side, while the former did so through a forbidden love between a Maronite Christian and a Druze. In the case of Roxana, the two sides are the Montenegrin Christians and the Ottoman Muslims and the suitors are Ianko and Radivoi (who converts to Islam before the second act), both of whom are in love with the beautiful, but mysterious Montenegrin woman Roxana. The story also contains strong echoes to Giselle with its love triangle and its supernatural themes of wilis and other deadly female spirits, with the biggest differences being that the heroine is a living woman who turns into a wili by a spell rather than the ghost of a dead woman who has been betrayed and initiated into the rites of other betrayed women, is rescued and goes on to live happily ever after.
The ballet is set in a Montenegrin village that has been met with a chain of natural disasters and tragedies. In the village lives a beautiful, but mysterious young girl named Roxana, who never attends church. The young Turk, Radivoi is in love with her, but when he declares his love, but she rejects him. Furious, Radivoi publicly accuses Roxana of being a witch, which is why she never attends church, and that she is responsible for all the natural disasters. This invokes the anger of the villagers and an angry mob sets out to kill Roxana, but she is rescued by Ianko, a young Montenegrin, who is also in love with her and takes her into his protection (see fig. 2).
The second act takes place in Roxana’s house, where Ianko declares his love for her, but although she reciprocates, she cannot reply in kind. She attempts to waver, but at that moment, a terrible ghostly apparition appears at the open window in the form of a giant, vampiric red butterfly – it is Roxana’s dead mother, a witch who has cursed her daughter (see fig. 3). Ianko realises that Radivoi was telling the truth and that Roxana is cursed to become a wili every night until dawn. Horrified, Ianko rushes out, but not before swearing that he will break the curse on his beloved. Afterwards, Radivoi, angry and vengeful, breaks into the house to do away with his rival, but the Vampire Butterfly scares him away. The moon rises and Roxana transforms into a wili; she spirits off to a valley near the mountains where she joins other wilis and ghostly spirits and dances with them.
It is in the third act that the drama unfolds in the form of a nocturnal battle. Ianko has followed Roxana to the enchanted valley, but so has Radivoi, who enters the forest searching for them. Roxana, as a wili, has been chosen as Queen of the Spirits and orders her wilis to dance Radivoi to death and they oblige, but it is in a fight with Ianko that seals Radivoi’s fate. The rivals duel, but Radivoi, exhausted from dancing, does not possess the strength to fight and Ianko throws him off a bridge to his death. The wilis then turn their attentions to Ianko, but Roxana tries in vain to protect him, successfully biding the time until dawn breaks and the wilis are forced to disappear, while Roxana turns back into a human (see fig. 4).
The fourth act sees the ballet closing on a happier note after the final dramatic touches. With the knowledge he has acquired of the curse, Ianko sets out to save Roxana and with his friends, he destroys her mother’s grave and kills the Vampire Butterfly (see fig. 5). The curse is finally broken, Roxana is free to love Ianko and they are married.
Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro premièred on the 11th February [O.S. 29th January] 1878 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. It proved to be a success, although the critics were not overly excited, stating that the choreography was built on “banal classical pas and some effective character dances”, out of which stood out one entitled Raviola that was danced by Lyubov Radina and a militant dance performed by twenty-four students from the Theatre School. However, the critics simultaneously praised Sokolova’s performance, as well as the décor and costumes and reaction from the audience was more positive. Among those who attended the première were Tsar Alexander II, who praised Petipa’s work, and in 1879, Hariot, Lady Dufferin, wife of the British Ambassador attended a performance and she thought the last act was very pretty, especially with its Montenegrin costumes and dances, including one for children, which could have been the aforementioned militant dance. Alexander Benois remembered this number as a “brilliant, uplifting sight, with floor patterns that advanced and retreated, ‘forming a circle or spreading out like a fan.’” The most famous number from Minkus’s score was the March Kranli, which was adapted by Alexander II as military music and was performed at a concert in Saint Petersburg in March 1878 at the benefit for the Russians soldiers wounded in the war with Turkey and twenty years later, it was still played in the Saint Petersburg parks (hear audio below).
Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro is one of the many ballets that Petipa that fell into obscurity. However, as well as the March Kranli, another piece from the ballet is still featured in today’s repertoire – it is the music that is well known as the so-called “Fan variation” for Kitri in the Grand Pas de deux from Don Quixote. For many years, it was believed that this variation was composed by Riccardo Drigo for Matilda Kschessinska’s performance in Alexander Gorsky’s 1902 production, but according to Yuri Burlaka, the variation is from Minkus’s score for Roxana. Sure enough, the variation’s harp cadenzas are clearly symbolising the fluttering of butterfly wings rather than movements with a fan. How the variation ended up in Don Quixote is unknown, but it is possible that Gorsky interpolated it from Roxana for his 1902 production, where it is reputed to have been first danced by Kschessinska in the final act, or it was interpolated later on in the 1910s when Gorsky’s production became a permanent member of the Saint Petersburg repertoire. Since then, the variation ahs remained in what is now the famous Don Quixote Wedding Pas de deux.
- Nadine Meisner (2019) Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, USA: 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.