The Vestal

Grand ballet in three acts and four scenes
Music by Mikhail Ivanov
Libretto by Sergei Khudekov

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

Original 1888 Cast
Elena Cornalba

Pavel Gerdt

Maria Gorshenkova

Anna Johansson

Senator Julius Flac
Felix Kschessinsky

The High Priest
Nikolai Aistov

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 when the priests from the temple of the goddess Vesta 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 for now, she cannot marry Lucio. 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.

Elena Cornalba as Amata (1888)
Elena Cornalba as Amata (1888)

The 1880s saw the era of the Italian dancers in Russia, which began with Virginia Zucchi’s arrival in Saint Petersburg in 1885. The success of 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 intended to be created for Zucchi. However, due to difficulties with Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Zucchi refused to dance in the ballet and her contract with the Imperial Theatres was not renewed. Subsequently, Zucchi was replaced with her fellow Italian Elena Cornalba in the role of Amata. 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.

Pavel Gerdt as Lucio (1888)
Pavel Gerdt as Lucio (1888)

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. 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.

The Vestal was one of the many ballets to fall into obscurity after the Russian Revolution. The ballet was banned from the former 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.

Marie Petipa as Venus (1888)
Marie Petipa as Venus (1888)

Although The Vestal has not been performed in years, the music for four of the ballet’s variations are used today in various pieces, all of which are supplementary variations that were composed by Riccardo Drigo. Those four variations are the following:

    • Variation for Maria Anderson “L’amour” (1888) – this variation was originally composed by Drigo for Maria Gorshenkova’s performance in Le Roi Candaule. It was later interpolated into The Vestal as a variation for Maria Anderson’s performance as Cupid and became known as “L’amour”. Today, it is traditionally danced in the Paquita Grand Pas Classique.
    • Variation “L’echo” (1888) – this variation is used by Yuri Burlaka in his Rose Pas de quatre as a variation for the goddess, Hebe.
    • Variation “Valse Mignonne” – this variation is traditionally used as one of the so-called “Bridesmaid” variations in Don Quixote. It is also used as the variation for Medora in Le Jardin Animé in American Ballet Theatre’s production of Le Corsaire.
    • Variation for Elena Cornalba (1888) – this variation is today known as the famous Variation of Dulcinea in Don Quixote. It has been mistakenly thought that Drigo composed this variation for Matilda Kschessinskaya’s performance as Kitri/Dulcinea in Alexander Gorsky’s 1902 revival of Don Quixote. That, however, is not the case; it was composed by Drigo in 1888 for Elena Cornalba’s performance as Amata in The Vestal. The variation was later used as the variation for Gamzatti in the Act 4 Grand Pas d’action in Petipa’s final revival of La Bayadère.
Maria Egorova as a Roman woman (1888)
Maria Egorova as a Roman woman (1888)


  • Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd
  • Ezrahi, Christina (2012) Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia. US, UK: University of Pittsburgh Press, 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.