The Vestal

Grand ballet in three acts
Music by Mikhail Ivanov

World Première
17th February [O.S. 29th January] 1888
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1888 Cast
Amata
Elena Cornalba

Lucio
Pavel Gerdt

Claudia
Maria Gorshenkova

Lelia
Anna Johansson

Senator Julius Flac
Felix Kschessinsky

The High Priest
Nikolai Aistov

Plot
Set in Ancient Rome, the centurion Lucio is in love with Amata, the younger daughter of Senator Julius Flac. Lucio leaves for a year to fight in battle and after his return, he and Amata will be married. However, fate goes against the lovers for, after Lucio’s departure, the priests from the temple of Vesta, the Goddess of the Hearth arrive at the Senator’s home. They have come to seek a young maiden to become a Vestal, a priestess who will serve the goddess for thirty years, but must remain unmarried and chaste. Senator Flac tries to hide Amata, but is thwarted by his elder daughter Claudia, who is also in love with Lucio and is bitterly jealous of her sister. The ritual to choose the new Vestal goes underway and, to the horror of Amata and Senator Flac, but to the delight of Claudia, Amata is chosen. Despite her pleas, she is taken from her father’s house to the temple of Vesta, where she is made a Vestal; Amata is left heartbroken by her new fate. However, the wicked Claudia’s thwarting of her sister’s happiness has all been in vain, for when Lucio returns a year later, he rejects Claudia’s advances with contempt. Lucio meets Senator Flac and Amata, who he is shocked to see is now a Vestal. She still loves Lucio, but refuses to flee with him, fearful of the shame it would inflict on her father. Life no longer has any meaning for the heartbroken Lucio and he leaves for the Coliseum to fight in the arena and die. Horrified, Amata follows him to stop him, but in the arena, Lucio is overpowered by his opponent. When asked for mercy or death, he chooses death and stabs himself with his opponent’s sword. Amata rushes to Lucio’s side, but only in time for him to die in her arms. Overcome with grief, Amata takes the sword from Lucio’s body and kills herself.

History
The 1880s saw the era of the Italian dancers in Russia, which began with Virginia Zucchi’s arrival in St Petersburg in 1885. The success of Mme. Zucchi’s performances led to the arrivals of other great Italian dancers, such as Enrico Cecchetti and Elena Cornalba in 1887, and Petipa creating some of his finest works, one of which was The Vestal. The Vestal was among the greatest ballets that Petipa created for the Italian dancers and was one of two works of great magnificence that he created for Elena Cornalba; the other being The Talisman. The Vestal followed the example of The Pharaoh’s Daughter as it was labelled by critics as an epitome of the ballet à grand spectacle with the complexity of its dramatic story of love, jealousy, betrayal and tragedy and its lavish, extravagant production, all built on the fantastical themes of gods and goddesses, Emperors and the like. The music was composed by Russian composer, Mikhail Ivanov and was the first successful ballet score to be composed by a symphonic composer. The Vestal has also been labelled as the predecessor of The Sleeping Beauty.

The ballet was premièred on the 17th February [O.S. 29th January] 1888 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre and was a great success. Elena Cornalba was highly praised for her brilliant virtuosa technique, but not so much for her acting. Unlike Virginia Zucchi, who mastered dramatic roles, Cornalba was considered at her weakest in dramatic roles such as that of Amata.

Sadly, The Vestal was one of the many ballets to fall into obscurity after the Russian Revolution. The ballet was banned from the Mariinsky repertoire in 1929, primarily because the Soviet authorities demanded the presentations of ballets that touched on the ideological socialism and realism of the new Communist regime. With its spectacular portrayal of Ancient Rome and Roman mythology, The Vestal did not meet those demands and was officially classified as a “forbidden ballet” for the Soviet ballet repertoire.

Mikhail Mordkin as Lucio (ca. 1900)
Mikhail Mordkin as Lucio (ca. 1900)

Did you know?

  • Although The Vestal has not been performed in years, the music for three of the ballet’s variations are used today in various pieces, all of which are supplementary variations that were composed by Riccardo Drigo. Those three variations are the following:
    • Variation for Maria Gorshenkova (1888) – this variation is used as the female variation in the Pas d’esclave in Le Corsaire
    • Variation for Maria Anderson “L’amour” (1888) – this variation is traditionally danced in the Paquita Grand Pas Classique
    • Variation for Elena Cornalba “L’echo” (1888) – this variation is used by Yuri Burlaka in his Rose Pas de quatre as a variation for the goddess, Hebe
  • During the première performance, a dangerous accident occurred. A lighted urn was knocked over during the second act, causing a fire, which disrupted the performance and frightened the audience. Luckily, the fire was extinguished before it could cause any serious damage and no one was injured.

 

Sources

  • Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd