The Pharaoh’s Daughter

Grand ballet in four acts
Music by Cesare Pugni
Libretto by Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Marius Petipa

World Première
30th January [O.S. 18th January] 1862
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, Saint Petersburg

Original 1862 Cast
Princess Aspicia
Carolina Rosati

Lord Wilson/Ta-Hor
Marius Petipa

Lyubov Radina

John Bull/Passifont
Timofei Stukolkin

The Fisherman
Lev Ivanov

The Fisherman’s Wife
Alexandra Kemmerer

The Pharaoh
Nikolai Goltz

The King of Nubia
Felix Kschessinsky

Première of Petipa’s first revival
22nd November 1885
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1885 Cast
Princess Aspicia
Virginia Zucchi

Lord Wilson/Ta-Hor
Pavel Gerdt

Première of Petipa’s final revival
2nd November [O.S. 21st October] 1898
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1898 Cast
Princess Aspicia
Matilda Kschessinskaya

Lord Wilson/Ta-Hor
Pavel Gerdt

Anna Johansson

John Bull/Passifont
Sergei Lukyanov

The King of Nubia
Felix Kschessinsky

Inspired by the 1858 novel, The Romance of the Mummy by Théophile Gautier, The Pharaoh’s Daughter tells of the adventures of the Englishman, Lord Wilson, who under the influence of opium, is transported back in time to Ancient Egypt in a hallucinatory dream. In this wonderful fantasy, he is transformed into the Ancient Egyptian, Ta-Hor and falls in love with Princess Aspicia, the daughter of the Pharaoh.

Carolina Rosati as Princess Aspicia (1862)
Carolina Rosati as Princess Aspicia (1862)

The Pharaoh’s Daughter was Petipa’s first substantial success amongst all of the great ballets he was to create as a choreographer for the Imperial Theatre. Petipa created this ballet when he was still a dancer in 1862 under the tutelage of Arthur Saint-Léon, the Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatres at the time. Carolina Rosati, who danced the role of Princess Aspicia at the première, was a leading ballerina of the Imperial Theatre and was close to retirement at the time of the performance. The dual role of Lord Wilson/Ta-Hor was danced by Petipa himself and this was to be his final role as a dancer as he was appointed second ballet master to Saint-Léon after the ballet’s première.

Amazingly, it took Petipa just six weeks to stage and complete the colossal production, primarily due to the circumstance of Rosati’s retirement; the ballerina was determined to take advantage of her contractual right to dance in a new ballet for her farewell benefit performance. Despite the haste in the staging and completion, the ballet was a magnificent success and proved that Petipa could properly compete with his rival, Saint-Léon.

By the turn of the 20th century, The Pharaoh’s Daughter was the most popular ballet in the Imperial Ballet repertoire, with its colossal décor depicting a huge Egyptian jungle, the Pharaoh’s palace and an enchanted underwater kingdom. Although the ballet contained a few dramatic mime scenes, it was never meant to be a great work of drama, but rather a highly entertaining, excessive spectacle where the audience could have the most fun and excitement watching a ballet taking place in distant, exotic locale. Following Petipa’s final revival on the 2nd November [O.S. 21st October] 1898 for the benefit performance of Anna Johansson, the great Matilda Kschessinskaya was the primary interpreter of the role of Princess Aspicia. There are contemporary accounts of grand evenings at the Mariinsky Theatre where everyone of rank and royalty came to watch The Pharaoh’s Daughter and Kschessinskaya would play host at such evenings as Princess Aspicia, complete with her glittering décolletage of fabulous Fabergé diamonds. The old Maestro Petipa would write in his diary of how any performance of The Pharaoh’s Daughter was “…a great success.”

Marius Petipa as Ta-Hor (1862)
Marius Petipa as Ta-Hor (1862)

The ballet, however, did not survive in post-revolution Russia due to the fact that the Soviet authorities felt the work was of “negligible artistic value”. This was mostly due to the fact that, in many ways, the new regime felt that the ballet was a perfect example of the theatrical excesses of the Imperial Russian Court. Until French choreographer, Pierre Lacotte’s production for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2000, The Pharaoh’s Daughter had not been performed since 1928 and had in many ways passed into legend in the annals of ballet history. The great Rudolf Nureyev had expressed interest in reviving it, but his failing health and eventual death in 1993 prevented him from ever doing so.

Petipa’s final revival of The Pharaoh’s Daughter was notated in the Stepanov notation method between 1903 and 1906 and is part of the Sergeyev Collection.

For his 2000 production for the Bolshoi Ballet, Lacotte chose not to follow the notation scores after refusing to believe that excerpts of the notated choreography that he had been shown could have been Petipa’s choreography. Stepanov notation expert, Doug Fullington reconstructed the notated river variations for him, but Lacotte took a dislike to the choreography, stating that it was “too old-fashioned to be Petipa”. In the end, he completely re-choreographed the ballet in his own design, even rearranging and making quite drastic changes to Pugni’s score. He also restored several variations that have survived and been passed on through the personal recollections of great Russian dancers of the past, including his teacher, Lyubov Egorova, one of Petipa’s ballerinas. However, Lacotte’s efforts to stage The Pharaoh’s Daughter based on dancers’ recollections were not always successful. One of the dancers he consulted on the matter was the Bolshoi Prima Ballerina, Marina Semyonova, a celebrated student of Agrippina Vaganova, who had danced the role of Princess Aspicia only once in her career. Lacotte’s visit to Semyonova proved to be in vain as she claimed that she could not remember anything about her one-off performance as Aspicia or anything else about the ballet. Lacotte’s production of The Pharaoh’s Daughter was met with success and has since remained a popular member of the Bolshoi Ballet’s repertoire.

The Grand Pas des chasseress of Act 1 in the 1898 revival: in the centre is Matilda Kschessinskaya as Princess Aspicia (1898)
The Grand Pas des chasseress of Act 1 in the 1898 revival: in the centre is Matilda Kschessinskaya as Princess Aspicia (1898)


Did you know?

  • The Pharaoh’s Daughter was one of Petipa’s favourites of his many creations, if not his favourite creation.
  • The role of Princess Aspicia was one of Matilda Kschessinskaya’s favourite roles. In her memoirs, the ballerina reflects on when she was invited to dance in Paris in 1908 and 1909. As part of her appearances, she introduced the Parisian audiences to her favourite variation from The Pharaoh’s Daughter when she danced in the ballet La Korrigane and the variation was met with great success.
  • When Virginia Zucchi danced in the 1885 revival, she had difficulty adapting to the type of tutu that was used in Russia at the time, which had longer skirts than the type that was used in her native Italy. Therefore, Zucchi shortened the skirts on her costumes for Princess Aspicia so she could dance more comfortably, much to the shock of Petipa. Luckily, Zucchi avoided any scandal over the matter and her performances as Princess Aspicia were hugely successful. The Russian ballerinas went onto follow her example and the Russian tutu skirt was shortened thereafter.
  • One number of the first act is the appearance of a monkey that swings through the branches of the jungle, disturbing Aspicia and the huntresses as they rest. The Pharaoh’s Daughter was performed at the Imperial Theatre on Tsar Nicholas II’s name day on the 6th December 1916 and performing the role of the monkey in this performance was the 12 year old George Balanchine.


The Underwater Kingdom

The most spectacular scene in The Pharaoh’s Daughter was perhaps the Underwater Kingdom scene. In this scene, Aspicia has thrown herself into the Nile to escape from the clutches of the King of Nubia and descends into the underwater realm of Father Nile. The god welcomes Aspicia with open arms, after which the Grand Pas des fleuves, ruisseaux et sources is performed. In this grand pas, the corps de ballet (which includes a group of children) represent rivers, streams and sources and six variations are performed by soloists who represent six rivers from different countries – the River Guadalquivir of Spain, the River Thames of Great Britain, the River Rhine of Germany, the River Congo of Africa, the River Neva of Russia and the River Tiber of Italy. Afterwards, a Pas de la Vision is performed, in which Aspicia is shown a vision of her beloved Ta-Hor and begs to return to him; this pas is parallel to the vision scenes from The Sleeping Beauty and Raymonda. The scene ends with Aspicia ascending to the surface on a giant mother-of-pearl shell.

Matilda Kschessinskaya as Princess Aspicia in the Underwater Kingdom scene (ca. 1900)
Matilda Kschessinska as Princess Aspicia in the Underwater Kingdom scene (ca. 1900)


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