The Beauty of Lebanon, or The Mountain Spirit

Ballet fantastique in three acts and seven scenes with a prologue and epilogue
Music by Cesare Pugni
Libretto by Mavrikii Rappaport and Marius Petipa
Décor by Andrei Roller, Heinrich Wagner and Albert Bredov
Costumes by Adolph Charlemagne

World Première
24th December [O.S. 12th December] 1863
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, Saint Petersburg

Original 1863 Cast
Mirana
Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa

Livan
Marius Petipa

Esmar
Christian Johansson

Beshir
Timofei Stukolkin

Plot
The bored Mountain Spirit Livan is seeking a new victim for his own malicious enjoyment. Using his magical powers, he spies on the lovers’ tryst between the Marionite Mirana and the Druze Esmar. Enchanted by Mirana’s beauty, Livan resolves to prevent their marriage and to take the girl for himself. Mirana and Esmar are forced to go through a series of trials contrived by the evil Spirit – a Druze attack on Mirana’s village, a fire, abduction and escape from the ruler Beshir’s harem. After reaching a campsite of her surviving kinsfolk, Mirana perishes shielding Esmar with her own body. The Mountain Spirit seizes the girl’s body and turns it into a diamond crag. Only by his will is she able to resume human form, but she rejects the Spirit’s advances. Mirana is saved from the reprisals of demons by the good spirit of the Marionites, who transports her to an enchanted rose garden after turning her into a white dove.

Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa as Mirana (1863)
Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa as Mirana (1863)

 

History
The Beauty of Lebanon, or The Mountain Spirit was the second grand ballet created and staged by Petipa. After the success of The Pharaoh’s Daughter, Petipa was commissioned by the Directorate of the Imperial Theatre to stage a new big ballet, which Petipa would choreograph especially for his wife, Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa. The new work was originally planned for the spring of 1863, but the première was postponed when Mme. Petipa injured her leg and then came down with a bad cold. By the time she had recovered, it was now vacation time and the time for her performances abroad, so the new ballet’s première was postponed until the winter.

The new work that Petipa produced was The Beauty of Lebanon, or The Mountain Spirit, a grand ballet fantastique that took place in the mountain range of Mount Lebanon during the 1860 Mount Lebanon civil war between the Christian Maronites and the Muslim Druze. Petipa collaborated with one of his wife’s most fervent supporters, the critic Mavrikii Rappaport on the ballet’s libretto and another possible influence for the libretto was research of mineralogy, for it drew upon the knowledge of another Petipa supporter, Nikolai Poksharov, professor of mineralogy at the Institute of Mining. This is especially apparent in the final act, which took place in Livan’s cave and contained a divertissement of minerals – diamond, alexandrite, iron, cinnabar, gold and silver. The main focus of the story was Mirana, a Maronite; according to the published libretto, “she combines Christian modesty with Eastern passion and moves under the green branches of the countryside as lightly as a gazelle, without creasing the grass underfoot”. In a love story that echoes Romeo and Juliet, Mirana and Esmar, a Druze, are in love, but obstacles stand in their way, the first and most obvious being the religious conflict. The second is that Mirana has two other admirers – Beshir, the Druze leader and Livan, the evil Mountain Spirit. Petipa, of course, followed the typical Romantic Ballet tradition of reality meeting the supernatural, but he also took an extra step in combining Christian images with fairy tale elements. For example, the moment when Livan turns Mirana’s lifeless body into a diamond crag and then gnomes appear as his servants was possibly a reference to the Snow White fairy tale. The ballet ends with Mirana’s salvation by the patron saint of the Maronites, who carries her off to an enchanted rose garden filled with birds of paradise. In the final apotheosis, Mirana, transformed into a white dove, is seen flying through the sky towards the guardian spirit of the land, while below them, Esmar and the Maronites claim victory over the Druze.

Felix Kschessinsky and Matilda Madayeva (1863)
Felix Kschessinsky and Matilda Madayeva in the Lebanese Dance (1863)

While The Beauty of Lebanon was still in production, the directorate had high hopes for the new work, as they were determined for another work to match the success of The Pharaoh’s Daughter. 40,000 roubles were spent on Petipa’s new ballet, which was the equivalent of a month’s box office takings for all the Saint Petersburg theatres combined. This expenditure was even satirised in a poem written by an anonymous writer, which started with the lines, “Forty thousand! Forty thousand!/Cost our new ballet! They should flog the ballet master, so that he remembers for forty years!”

The Beauty of Lebanon finally premièred on the 24th December [O.S. 12th December] 1863 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre with Mme. Petipa as Mirana, Christian Johansson as Esmar, Petipa as Livan and Timofei Stulkolkin as Beshir. However, the reaction was, at best, a mixed response – the diehard Petipa supporters were joyously delighted by the new work, their standing ovations lasting until the last light was extinguished, but those who were not so enthusiastic wasted no time in pointing out the ballet’s flaws. The biggest flaw was the scenario, which many deemed as too hard to follow due to its many entanglements and was full of absurdities. The critic for the newspaper Golos reported that, “it is hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the story of the ballet ‘The Beauty of Lebanon'”. However, the positive reactions to some of the ballet’s highlights cannot be ignored. Pugni’s music score was praised, especially by the admittedly biased Rappaport in his review for his newspaper Syn otechestva, who called Pugni “the master of his art” and went onto say that his music was “full of fresh melodies and interesting instrumentation”. Rappaport also praised Petipa for embroidering rich patterns onto the drama’s canvas, including character dances, in which “he excels, always trying faithfully to capture the local colour”.

Some of the dance numbers from the first and second acts were met with praise. The first act included a character dance for Lebanese highlanders, performed by Matilda Madaeva and Felix Kschessinsky, which made a particularly vivid impression, and the second act featured a Pas de derivches tourneurs. Christian Johansson, who was 46 years old at the time, was particularly praised for his performance of the classical variation entitled Le Battement de Coeur, its music and movements representing and capturing the palpitations of a tremulous lover. Other dancers who were praised included Maria Sokolova for “the perfection of her classical technique,” Alexandra Kemmerer, “full of promise as a virtuosa,” and Anna Kosheva, “always with her distinctive attack and daring, breakneck speed”.

Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa as Mirana (1863)
Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa as Mirana (1863)

The most successful number of the ballet was the dance number entitled Pas de la Charmeuse (La Charmeuse), a graceful Eastern dance for Mme. Petipa in the second act when Mirana is being held captive in Beshir’s harem, accompanied by solo violin performed by the celebrated Polish violinist Henryk Wieniawski. Sergei Khudekov recalled that La Charmeuse always brought “the public to a state of frenzy ecstasy. Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa did not astound with her variations, but so enchanted the public that her wonderful image was imprinted on the spectator’s imagination for a long time …” La Charmeuse became one of Mme. Petipa’s most celebrated numbers, however, it was not enough to save the ballet.

Due to the disappointing reception it received at the première, The Beauty of Lebanon did not stay long in the Imperial Ballet repertoire. However, the ballet was revived the following year by Petipa on the 1st January 1865 [O.S. 20th December 1864] with the original cast members reprising their roles and with significant changes. One such change was the addition of a new pas de deux for Mme. Petipa and Johansson that had been taken from Le Corsaire and one critic describes how Mme. Petipa performed two pirouettes en pointe before falling into Johansson’s arms “without any loss of grace, plastique, or expressiveness.” Of course, the highlight was once again the Pas de la Charmeuse, which proved to be the only segment of the ballet that would live on, at least for a time, for the ballet soon disappeared from the repertoire.

La Charmeuse, however, being the ballet’s most successful number and one of Mme. Petipa’s signature dances, was performed at various events thereafter, such as her benefit performance in 1865. Ten years later, the number was passed onto her daughter Marie, who danced it on the 7th March [O.S. 23rd February] 1875. According to Natalia Roslavleva, La Charmeuse was later chosen by Anna Pavlova ‘for its languid grace’ for a performance, but she neglects to mention in which ballet and/or occasion Pavlova made use of it. It is likely it was reconstructed for her from the memory – and possibly notes – of Petipa himself since all of Pavlova’s teachers were still children in the Theatre School in 1863 and The Beauty of Lebanon did not hold repertoire long enough for these people to build memories of it.

 

Sources

  • Meisner, Nadine (2019) Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, US: Oxford University Press