Ballet in one act
Music by Nikolai Krotkov
Libretto by Marius Petipa
Décor by Mikahil Bocharov
Costumes by Pavel Kamensky
17th June [O.S. 5th June] 1889
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg
Original 1889 Cast
The Phoenix Butterfly
Première of Petipa’s revival
3rd November [O.S. 22nd October] 1895
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1895 Cast
The Phoenix Butterfly
The talented musician Grasshopper is in love with the Butterfly, who is a devotee to the musical arts, and defends her from the predatory Nightingale, even though she is in love with the Phoenix Butterfly. Saved, the Butterfly and the Phoenix Butterfly marry and all the insects celebrate, until night falls, revealing the badly wounded Grasshopper, all alone, except for moths that have appeared.
The Whims of the Butterfly (Les Caprices du Papillon) is one of Petipa’s several one-act ballets with a subject of flora and fauna, with the subject in this case being insects. The libretto was based on the poem The Grasshopper Musician by Yakov Polonsky and the composer was Nikolai Krotkov, who served as conductor at the Alexandrinsky Theatre and later the Mikhailovsky and had previously composed a Beauty and the Beast opera for Mamontov’s Private Opera in Moscow.
The year of 1889 was the year of the Imperial wedding of the Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich, brother of Tsar Alexander III, to Princess Alexandra of Greece. In accordance with tradition, Petipa was commissioned to create his new insect ballet for a private performance for the Imperial Family that was held at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. The ballet featured an all-star cast, with Varvara Nikitina creating the role of the Butterfly, caught in a love triangle with Pavel Gerdt’s Phoenix Butterfly and Sergei Litavkin’s violinist Grasshopper. Another notable cast member was the young Nikolai Legat, who was in his first season with the Imperial Ballet after graduating from the Theatre School in 1888, in the role of the Nightingale. The ballet also featured rising star Maria Anderson as the Fly, who would be caught by Alexander Shiryaev’s Spider. An interesting choice in the libretto is that although it includes a wedding between the main couple, unlike most of Petipa’s ballets, the ballet does not close on the wedding celebration. Instead, it ends on a melancholy note in which the curtain falls on the rejected love interest, who has been left alone and badly wounded, an ending more similar to such ballets as La Sylphide, Trilby and The Naiad and the Fisherman.
The Whims of the Butterfly made its world première on the 17th June [O.S. 5th June] 1889 at the Imperial Theatre. Four months later, the ballet was given its first public performance in the same venue on the 6th November [O.S. 25th October] 1889 in a gala that also featured Lev Ivanov’s The Enchanted Forest and Petipa’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reaction to the new ballet, however, appears to not have been overly enthusiastic and it seems to have suffered from being included in a three-part bill that had too much flora and fauna, though the performances were faultless, with much praise going to Nikitina’s Butterfly. Despite this, after the 1889/90 season was over, the ballet was no longer active in the repertoire.
The Whims of the Butterfly made a comeback when Petipa revived it in 1895, with new costumes by Ivan Vsevolvozhsky, a revision of Krotkov’s original score by Riccardo Drigo and another all-star cast. Dancing the Butterfly was Lyubov Roslavleva, newly arrived from Moscow, with Nikolai Legat as the Phoenix Butterfly and Enrico Cecchetti as the Grasshopper. As before, the role of the Fly was danced by another rising star Olga Preobrazhenskaya, with Shiryaev reprising his role as the Spider, and the Nightingale was danced by Sergei Legat, taking over the role that had been originated by his brother. Petipa’s revival of The Whims of the Butterfly premièred on the 3rd November [O.S. 22nd October] 1895 at the Imperial Theatre and it appears to have been more successful than the original production, for it was kept in the repertoire thereafter. Preobrazhenskaya would later go onto become a celebrated interpreter of the role of the Butterfly after she made her dèbut in the role on the 1st May [O.S. 19th April] 1898 and she would choose to dance it for her benefit performance in 1905. The ballet was performed for the final time by the former Imperial Ballet in 1925.
The Whims of the Butterfly was notated in the Stepanov Notation method and is part of the Sergeyev Collection.
- Meisner, Nadine (2019) Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, US: Oxford University Press