Ballet-féerie in four acts and seven scenes
Music by Arsenii Koreschenko
Libretto by Marius Petipa
22nd February [O.S. 9th February] 1903
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg
Original 1903 Cast
A Polish Magnate
The Princess’s Retinue
The Prince’s Retinue
A vain Queen is given a magic mirror as a gift that shows who is the most beautiful woman in the land; the Queen is delighted when the mirror casts her reflection, stating that it is she who is the most beautiful in all the realms. However, when she consults the mirror again, it shows the reflection of her stepdaughter, the Princess. Enraged with jealousy, the Queen devises a plan to get rid of her stepdaughter, but with the help of her nurse, the Princess flees into the forest, where she takes shelter with seven gnomes. However, the Queen tracks her down and tricks her into eating a poisoned apple, which seemingly kills her. The gnomes lay her to rest in a glass coffin, but luckily, the Princess’s fiancé, the Prince finds his missing bride and breaks the enchantment, restoring her to life.
The Magic Mirror was the final full-length ballet that Petipa created and was, perhaps, his most controversial work. He began working on the new ballet in 1902, with the music composed by Russian composer, Arsenii Koreschenko. The ballet was an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s poem The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Knights and the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale Snow White, but was more faithful to the former.
Petipa and Koreschenko were commissioned by the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Prince Sergei Volkonsky to create The Magic Mirror. Volkonsky was Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s successor in the role of Director and had proven himself to be a worthy successor. However, everything at the Imperial Theatres took a turn for the worst after the commissioning for the new ballet. Volkonsky found himself in a difficult situation caused by a great deal of meddling from Matilda Kschessinskaya. Through her connections to the Imperial Russian Court, Kschessinskaya had recently usurped the role of Marie Camargo in La Camargo following Pierina Legnani’s departure from Russia the previous year. For this role, she had to wear an authentic 18th century costume that included bulky paniers, but she refused to wear the panniers and danced in her scheduled performance without them. The next day, a bulletin was posted around the theatre stating that Kschessinskaya had been fined for modifying her costume against the wishes of the director and, in an effort to clear her name, she wasted no time in appealing to Tsar Nicholas II over the matter. Volkonsky was summoned to appear before the Tsar to explain the situation and after he had finished, the Tsar commanded that Kschessinskaya’s fine be withdrawn and for its cancellation to be publicly announced. Volkonsky submitted to the Tsar’s wishes, but said he would be forced to resign and, although the Tsar asked him to think it over, Volkonsky found a letter when he arrived home that same day saying that his resignation had been regretfully accepted.
Following Volkonsky’s abrupt resignation, Col. Vladimir Teliakovsky was chosen as his successor, despite having very little knowledge and/or experience in the Performing Arts. Teliakovsky was now in charge of the staging of The Magic Mirror. At the time, changes were beginning to be imposed onto classical ballet; changes which would be later seen in the works of Mikhail Fokine, who succeeded Petipa as Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatres. Modernism was being introduced to the art form for the first time and Teliakovsky was among those in favour of “the new era” and considered Petipa as part of “the old era”. However, Teliakovsky could not go against the wishes and traditional tastes of the Imperial Family, so therefore, what had to be done was for classicism and modernism to be balanced.
The Magic Mirror has been labelled as a ballet that symbolised the clashes between classicism and modernism. Under Teliakovsky’s approval, the ballet received the most appalling of stagings with terrible scenery and costumes that did not appear to be finished (as shown in the photo above). The scenery was designed by an inexperienced young artist called Alexander Golovine, who was a member of a group of avante garde painters, known as “Les décadents”. Golovine would later find success for his exotic sceneries and costumes for Fokine’s ballet The Firebird.
When The Magic Mirror premièred on the 22nd February [O.S. 9th February] 1903, it was a disaster with many criticising the staging and music score. The ballet was even met with whistles, cat-calls and shouts of “curtain” and Golovine’s scenery provoked unanimous laughter. However, in all the scathing reviews for The Magic Mirror, including a very notorious one by Sergei Diaghilev, Petipa’s choreography is never mentioned or criticised.
Petipa writes in his memoirs that he believed the terrible staging of what was to be his final ballet was all part of a conspiracy of get rid of him, placing Teliakovsky and Kschessinskaya firmly in the picture:
Already, during the rehearsals for this ballet, I was convinced that something was being plotted against me and my ballet, the commission for which had been given to M. Koreschenko and me by M. Volkonsky, and not by M. Teliakovsky. Mlle Kschessinska took an active part in this intrigue, revenging herself because at the benefit of her late father, I had not greeted him with a speech. I will not speak of that; it is not the business of the ballet master to shine with eloquence at every possible benefit. In this case, it was only because I had a sore throat and was unable to come forth with a public speech, that I did not do it. Mlle Kschessinska did not believe me, and in her resentment joined the camp of the colonel’s followers, forgetting that I helped to create her artistic career, and that I was always ready to help her in everything which concerned her successes on the stage.
Following the ballet’s disastrous première, The Magic Mirror underwent a revival by Petipa, for which Riccardo Drigo composed new music numbers. Unfortunately, even this revival could not save the ballet and it was soon dropped from the Imperial Ballet repertoire. However, The Magic Mirror was given a home in Moscow when Alexander Gorsky revived it for the Imperial Bolshoi Ballet. Gorsky’s revival was performed thirty-six times between 1905 and 1911.
The Magic Mirror was performed for the final time in 1911, after which, it fell into obscurity. However, several excerpts of Petipa’s choreography were notated in the Stepanov notation method and are part of the Sergeyev Collection. Today, a variation that Riccardo Drigo composed for Sergei Legat is used today in Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka’s production of Le Corsaire. It is used in the Act 3 Grand Pas des Éventails as the variation for the Cavalier.
- Petipa, Marius, Russian Ballet Master: The Memoirs of Marius Petipa. Translated ed. by Helen Whittaker, introduction and edited by Lillian Moore. London, UK: Dance Books Ltd (1958)
- Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd
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.