Ballet fantastique in four acts and seven scenes with a prologue and epilogue
Music by Riccardo Drigo
Libretto by Konstantin Tarnovsky and Marius Petipa
Décor by Heinrich Levogt (Prologue and Epilogue), Ivan Andreyev (Acts 1 and 4), Mikhail Bocharov (Act 2) and Matvei Shiskov (Act 3)
6th February [O.S. 25th January] 1889
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1889 Cast
Première of Petipa’s revival
4th November [O.S. 22nd October] 1895
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1895 Cast
Set in Ancient India, the beautiful young goddess, Ella, the daughter of Amravati, the Queen of the Heavens, descends to earth with her guardian, Uragan the wind god, to test if she can resist the temptations of mortal love. If she fails, she will forfeit her right to immortality. Amravati has given her daughter a sacred talisman that will enable her to return home as long as it remains in her possession, for if she were to lose it, she cannot return to the Heavens. During their visit to earth, Ella and Uragan encounter the young Maharajah, Noureddin, who falls in love with Ella, despite being engaged to the Princess Damayanti, daughter of King Akdar. Noureddin gains possession of the talisman and after he learns the secret behind the sacred object, he is determined that Ella should stay on earth and become his wife and queen. Ella and Uragan resort to great measures to retrieve the talisman from Noureddin so that Ella can return to her mother. However, Ella soon realises that immortality and celestial delights cannot match the happiness that Noureddin offers her with his love and ultimately chooses to stay with him on earth as a mortal woman.
The Talisman was the creation of Petipa and Riccardo Drigo. It was choreographed and produced by Petipa for the benefit performance of Elena Cornalba. The ballet was unique for its time because it consisted of two male principal roles – the role of Noureddin, created by Pavel Gerdt and the role of Uragan, created by Enrico Cecchetti.
The Talisman was premièred on the 6th February [O.S. 25th January] 1889 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in four acts and seven scenes. The production was lavish to say the least, with colossal stage transformations and sumptuous decors. The second act featured a spectacular finale; after Noureddin rejected Princess Damayanti in favour of Ella, Uragan caused the ground to split open with flames emerging in his effort to protect Noureddin from the wrath of King Akdar and to save Ella’s talisman. The production also included a grand apotheosis where the stage was split into two levels. On the top level, Queen Amravati was shown in Heaven surrounded by her court that included spirits and various Hindu deities. On the bottom level, Noureddin and Ella were shown holding a durbar and dressed splendidly as a Maharajah and his Queen.
Although the choreography and the music were a great success, many felt that the ballet featured a rather “absurd and pretentious libretto” by Konstantin Tarnovsky. The ballet was blasted by contemporary critics, who claimed that art was sacrificed to the expense of spectacle. Nevertheless, in 1895, Petipa mounted a revival of The Talisman for Pierina Legnani, all the while simplifying the libretto to three acts and seven scenes. The revival was an enormous success and The Talisman remained in the Imperial Ballet repertoire for some years, always with Legnani in the lead role of Ella.
In 1909, The Talisman was revived for the second and final time by Nikolai Legat, who was ballet master of the Imperial Ballet at the time, with Drigo adding new orchestrations to his score and Legat making some choreographic changes and changing the names of some of the characters; Ella was renamed Niriti and Uragan was renamed Vayou. Legat’s revival was staged for the farewell benefit performance of Olga Preobrazhenskaya, who danced the role of Niriti and the role of Hurricane was danced by Vaslav Nijinsky.
The Talisman was one of the many ballets to fall into obscurity after the 1917 revolution, although one passage – the Grand Pas d’action of Act 2 – was notated and is part of the Sergeyev Collection. This is all that survived of Petipa’s choreography for The Talisman.
In 1997, the choreographer, Paul Chalmers staged a recreation of The Talisman for the Balletto del Teatro Filarmonico in honour of Drigo’s 150th birthday. The production was premièred on the 16th March at the Teatro Verdi di Padova in Padua, Italy, the place of Drigo’s birth. Dancing the role of Niriti in the première of this production was the great Italian Prima Ballerina, Carla Fracci, who was 61 years old at the time.
Enrico Cecchetti as Uragan
The Talisman holds an important place in the history of classical male dancing. Throughout the nineteenth century, male dancing fell into decline, especially in Paris and in parts of London. This was because the patrons of the Paris Opéra, all of whom were men with powerful positions in society, grew to detest male dancing, considering it “vulgar” compared to the beauty and elegance of the ballerina. As a result, the danseur was banished into the shadow of the ballerina and was soon replaced with the travesty danseuse (a woman in male garb). The Paris Opera Ballet became extremely feminised with the women dominating the Parisian repertoire in both the ballerina roles and the danseur roles, while the men were demoted to purely mimed roles. Male dancing became very limited in Europe, so much so that there were only three countries in which male dancing survived – Denmark, Italy and Russia. However, the feminisation of ballet would eventually fade and the danseur’s role would be restored following Enrico Cecchetti’s performance as the virtuoso wind god Uragan.
Cecchetti’s performance as Uragan in the original 1889 production was not his first lead role in Saint Petersburg, but it solidified his influence over the future of male dancing in Russia. For the role of Uragan, Petipa chose to exploit Cecchetti’s virtuosity, allowing him to showcase his incredible talents and abilities and in no small part, contributed to getting the danseur out of the ballerina’s shadow. By the 1890s, Cecchetti’s influence had manifested in danseurs such as Georgy Kyaksht (who was often Cecchetti’s understudy), Alexander Shiryaev, Nikolai and Sergei Legat, Alexander Gorsky and Vaslav Nijinsky, who caused a sensation when he stepped into Cecchetti’s role in 1909. Cecchetti’s contribution to male dancing further expanded throughout the twentieth century in the hands of various choreographers, confirming the danseur’s place in classical ballet.
Grand Ballabile – La Rose de Bengale
One of the most celebrated passages of The Talisman in Imperial Russia was the Grand Ballabile – La Rose de Bengale of the second act. The context of this Grand Ballabile was one of Ella and Uragan’s attempts to retrieve the talisman from Noureddin, in which Ella appeared to him in the guise of the Goddess of the Flowers to entice him to give up the talisman. In Petipa’s production, Ella made her entrance by rising out of a giant rose bush, accompanied by ballerinas who represented precious stones and the four elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth.
“Le Talisman Pas de deux”
The only piece that is performed today in reference to The Talisman is the so-called Le Talisman Pas de deux. However, despite popular belief, this pas de deux is not the creation of Petipa and has nothing to do with either his original 1889 production or his 1895 revival. It is, in fact, a Soviet-era creation that was created by Pyotr Gusev in 1955. The music used for this pas de deux is a pastiche of various pieces by Drigo, Cesare Pugni and the Soviet composer Alexander Bocharov. However, most of the music is from the full-length score of The Talisman:
- Entrée – the Valse des espirits from the prologue of The Talisman
- Adage – an adagio from the final act of The Talisman
- Male Variation – Male variation from the Act 2 Grand Pas des Cariatides of The Pharaoh’s Daughter
- Female Variation – an alternative variation for Gamzatti composed by Bocharov for a production of La Bayadère staged by Gusev
- Coda – a waltz-coda from the first act of The Talisman
- Meisner, Nadine (2019) Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, US: Oxford University Press
- Guest, Ivor (1977) The Divine Virgina: A Biography of Virginia Zucchi. New York, US: Marcel Dekker, Inc.
- Kschessinskaya, Matilda, H.S.H. The Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky (1960) Dancing in Petersburg: the Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinskaya. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd
- Racster, Olga (1923) Master of the Russian Ballet – The Memoirs of Enrico Cecchetti. Hampshire, UK: Noverre 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.