Trilby

Ballet fantastique in two acts and three scenes
Music by Yuri Gerber
Libretto by Marius Petipa
1870 Décor by Karl Valts and Pavel Isakov
1871 Décor by Andrei Roller and Heinrich Wagner
Costumes by Philippe Calver and Alexei Stoliarov

World Première
6th February [O.S. 25th January] 1870
Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

Original 1870 Cast
Mary
Polina Karpakova

Saint Petersburg Première
29th January [O.S. 17th January] 1871
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre

Original 1871 Cast
Trilby
Alexandra Simskaya

Bettli
Adele Granztow

Wilhelm
Lev Ivanov

Plot
The elf Trilbyis sworn to protect the home of the young peasant woman Bettli and the little bird Colibri. According to the laws of the magical lands of elves, Trilby is obliged to love Colibri forever and remain true to her, otherwise his soul will lose its immortality and perish. While protecting Bettli’s cottage, however, Trilby becomes captivated by the girl’s beauty and falls in love. In order to conceal his infidelity from the Queen of the Elves, he catches Colibri and puts her in a cage, while he, himself, tries to seduce Bettli on the eve of her marriage to the peasant Wilhelm, putting her into a magical sleep in which he transports her to the land of elves. Upset by Bettli’s thoughtlessness, Wilhelm releases Colibri from her cage. The charms that Trilby employed lose their force once Colibri is free and the bride and groom are reunited. As she sets off for her wedding, Bettli sees a vision of Colibri in the form of a young maiden with Trilby lying dead at her feet. The vision swiftly fades, however, with the arrival of guests and the start of the wedding feast.

Ekaterina Vazem as Bettli (1871)
Ekaterina Vazem as Bettli (1871)

 

History
Trilby was the final ballet that Petipa choreographed and staged for the Imperial Bolshoi Ballet during the two years that he was commissioned to create new works for the Moscow stage. For his final Moscow creation, Petipa created a new ballet adaptation of Charles Nodier’s novella Trilby, ou Le Lutin d’Argail, which had previously served as the inspiration for La Sylphide thirty-eight years earlier. The composer for the new ballet was Yuri Gerber, the Director of Music at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre. Unlike La Sylphide, however, Petipa made a more direct adaptation of Nodier’s novella, but his libretto was certainly not devoid of differences.

Nodier’s original story is a typical Romantic gothic story that tells of Trilby, an elf who is in love with Jeannie, whose house he guards and he lures her away from her fisherman husband Dougal. Dougal attempts to save his wife from the elf by enlisting the help of a monk, who exorcises Trilby from the house and he takes Jeannie on a pilgrimage to help her forget the elf. However, Trilby’s hold on Jeannie is too strong and it proves to be her undoing when she cannot find a balance between the two worlds, which drives her mad. Jeannie meets her fate when she throws herself into a freshly dug grave before Dougal’s eyes and dies of her injuries. Petipa retained the storyline of the elf guarding the house of a young woman, falling in love with her and luring her away from her beloved, but added new characters and storylines that gave a further insight into the world of the supernatural and seem to have been parallels to other Romantic ballets. Even the setting eventually underwent change: for the Moscow production, Petipa retained Nodier’s setting in the Scottish Highlands, but for the Saint Petersburg staging, the setting was changed to a village in Switzerland.

Students from the Imperial Ballet School (1884)
Students from the Imperial Ballet School (1884)

The character the Queen of the Elves is perhaps a parallel to Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, from Giselle and Hydrola, the Queen of the Sea, from The Naiad and the Fisherman in that she is the ruler of the magical world, the Land of Elves, and casts a firm eye on her subjects, ensuring that the laws of their world are not defied. There are rules that must be followed, or there will be consequences. The bird Colibri seems to be a parallel to Effie, Giannina and Bathilde; when the ballet begins, she is the one to whom the titular character is bound and he is obliged to remain faithful to her, but betrays her when he falls in love with another.

The principal ballerina role was originally a Scotswoman called Mary in the Moscow production; for the Saint Petersburg production, she became a Swiss village maiden named Bettli. Bettli, of course, is based on Jeannie from Nodier’s novella; rather than a female supernatural creature luring a mortal man away from his own world, it is a male supernatural creature luring a mortal woman from the one who loves her. Just like the Sylph, for whom he served as the character inspiration, Trilby seduces Bettli and lures her away from her fiancé Wilhelm on the day before her wedding. In a story element similar to that from the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, he puts Bettli into an enchanted sleep and takes her to the Land of Elves, intending to amaze her with this beautiful land in the hopes that she will reciprocate his love. He also transforms her into a dove, a possible reference to Mirana from The Beauty of Lebanon. However, Petipa altered the fate of his lead female role in his take on Nodier’s novella. While it is Jeannie who pays the price for Trilby’s seduction of her, in Petipa’s ballet, it is reversed; Trilby suffers the consequences for having defied the laws set firmly by the Queen of the Elves. Instead of sharing the same fate as Jeannie and James, Bettli shares the same fate as Teresina from August Bournonville’s Napoli; both women are seduced by supernatural forces and bewitched to forget their beloveds. Luckily, the enchantments bounding them are broken by their respective fiancés; Bettli is saved when Wilhelm frees Colibri from her cage and the couple are reunited, while Trilby is doomed to suffer the same fate as the Sylph.

Students from the Imperial Ballet School as Birds (1884)
Students from the Imperial Ballet School as Birds (1884)

 

Trilby had its world première in Moscow on the 6th February [O.S. 25th January] 1870, with Polina Karpakova creating the role of Mary. The ballet was later transferred to Saint Petersburg, where it premièred on the 29th January [O.S. 17th January] 1871. For the Saint Petersburg première, the role of Trilby was a travesty role danced by a student Alexandra Simskaya and dancing the roles of Bettli and Wilhem were Adèle Granztow and Lev Ivanov.

Trilby proved to be a popular and entertaining ballet, but it lasted longer in Saint Petersburg than in Moscow. Some of the ballet’s highlights included Trilby’s transforming Bettli into a dove, which proved to be a more than suitable incarnation for Granztow because, according to eyewitnesses, she “danced as if she belonged in the air, not on the ground”. Despite its popularity and its fantastic designs and stage effects, Trilby lived a short stage life, though it reappeared on the stage in 1883, with Eugenia Sokolova in the role of Bettli.

Today, the only piece associated with Trilby that is still performed is the music that is used for the male variation in the so-called Le Corsaire Pas de deux.

Lithograph of "The Magic Peacock" from Act 2
Lithograph of “The Magic Peacock” from Act 2

 

Bettli’s Dream
The most impressive feature of Trilby was that of Bettli’s dream. When Trilby puts the girl into an enchanted sleep, he attempts to win her love by entertaining her with visions of his magical homeland, the Land of Elves. The original Moscow production only contained a single fantasy scene in the Land of Elves, but for the Saint Petersburg production, there were four fantasy scenes, which allowed Petipa to increase the number of divertissements. These four scenes were the original Land of Elves scene in the first act and three new scenes that took place in the second act – The Mystic Forest, The Enchanted Cage and The Magic Peacock (shown in the above lithograph).

The many dances Petipa created were for birds, roses and elves; some of the numbers included a waltz for elves and a pas de trois for cockatoos. It was in these that the ballet contained some fantastic designs and stage effects and according to Sergei Khudekov, the most effective was featured in The Enchanted Cage. This scene featured a giant golden birdcage that occupied the whole stage and when it slid open, exquisite variegated groups of dancers as birds escaped. The idea for the golden cage had been borrowed from an unnamed féerie that had been presented at the Châtelet in Paris. The Enchanted Cage also contained a comic dance entitled the Canaries’ Wedding, which was performed by students dressed as eggs. The Magic Peacock was a sequence of dances and games, in which the mesmerized Bettli happily took part. At the end of the scene the giant figure of the Magic Peacock appeared, spreading her dazzling wings and tail and soaring above Bettli and Trilby.

Eugenia Sokolova as Bettli (1884)
Eugenia Sokolova as Bettli (1884)

 

Sources

  • Meisner, Nadine (2019) Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, US: Oxford University Press