History of Sleeping Beauty, Royal Ballet 2019

This is the interesting article in the ROH Sleeping Beauty Programme, courtesy of its author and the Royal Opera House.

Behind the Fairytale

by Sebastian Cody.

The budget for the first production of The Sleeping Beauty ‘almost equalled the cost of two warships’, or so said a recent Russian expert. This is perhaps a slight exaggeration but the sums involved were nonetheless exceptional. Why was Tsar Alexander III, for whom the work was produced, quite so generous? Who was behind the decision and what might they have been up to?

The Sleeping Beauty was created by three geniuses working together for the first time, all leading Russian cultural figures but with shared links to France that turn out to be significant. Tchaikovsky, with a French mother and a French governess, grew up bilingual, believing himself to be of Huguenot descent. Petipa was born in Marseille and, even after fifty years of working for the Tsars of Russia, still spoke and read in French, relying on translators. Petipa was not educated, said one of his favourite ballerinas and, despite his Russian family, by the time of his 1905 diaries, ‘Russian’ had become for him a kind of generalized insult.

The final member of The Sleeping Beauty troika was the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Prince Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who, as Clement Crisp writes, ‘planned, guided and inspired the ballet’s creation’. Tchaikovsky dedicated the Sleeping Beauty score to Vsevolozhsky, and later Petipa was to dedicate his memoirs to him. Vzevolozhsky, though from a grander Russian family than even the Romanovs, was also in many ways ‘French’. The former diplomat, who had served in the embassy in Paris, preferred to speak, write and do accounts in French (a close colleague reports him getting into difficulties when using Russian). His contemporary, the playwright and director Gnedic, wrote that Vsevolozhsky thought himself ‘a Marquis in the time of Louis XIV’, the French king who provides the setting, style and indeed the apotheosis of the ballet.

According to the Ballets Russes artist Alexander Benois, Vsevolozhsky’s courtly bows ‘were marked by a special elegance and complexity’. His nephew Volkonsky – his successor as Director – called him ‘witty, choleric, sarcastic’. It is said Vsevolozhsky’s talent for caricature nearly spoiled his diplomatic career. His secret cartoons show their creator to have been – rather more so than his Sleeping Beauty collaborators – not only deeply and intelligently cultured but also politically sophisticated and droll. Vzevolozhsky was a significant member of the court of the last remaining European autocrat, Alexander III, who tripled the budget of the Academy of Arts, commissioned the first Fabergé eggs, and spoke French when alone with his wife. We know from the playwright Ostrovsky that in his youth Alexander and his friend Vsevolozhsky performed together as members of the same amateur theatre group, Vsevolozhsky going on to write plays for St Petersburg’s main theatre. In 1888 – while mourning the death of his 16-year old daughter – he began work on The Sleeping Beauty.

His inspiration for the ballet was a sly fable by Charles Perrault, who along with Molière and Racine formed part of the community of artists at the court of Louis XIV. By setting his ballet in the era of that same court, Vsevolozhsky sent signals to the aristocratic St Petersburg audience. The Sleeping Beauty celebrates chivalry and the noble order – while at the same time warning against the dangers of ignoring propriety and social unrest.

Vsevolozhsky had recently worked with the French composer Albert Vizentini, chief conductor at the Imperial Theatres, on a ballet by Petipa. Given Vizentini’s availability – and Vsevolozhsky’s desire for a ‘French’ ballet (‘mise-en-scene in the style of Louis XIV’ with music in the spirit of ‘Lully and Rameau’) – Vizentini was the obvious choice for The Sleeping Beauty. However he would prove to be injudiciously expensive so Vsevolozhsky then turned to Tchaikovsky, whose opera The Enchantress he had just produced. Thanks to Vsevolozhsky, the Tsar had just settled a substantial annual payment on Tchaikovsky, who wrote a profuse letter of thanks in early May 1888. Vsevolozhsky seized the moment to try again with the notoriously volatile composer, who had sworn to write no more ballet music after the failure of the first Swan Lake.

In proposing Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant perhaps Vsevolozhsky was aware that Tchaikovsky had once created a children’s entertainment based on the tale for a beloved niece (she played the sleeping princess then, but had recently died unexpectedly). Certainly Vsevolozhsky knew Tchaikovsky was growing resistant to what he called the ‘terre-a-terre’: ‘subjects not of this world, where jam is not boiled, people aren’t executed, mazurkas aren’t danced, no-one is drunk, no petitions are served, etc. etc.’

After seeing an outline of the fairytale show – the original document from July 1888, handwritten in French, was only to deepen in detail, hardly changing its form – Tchaikovsky agreed enthusiastically. He asked for a meeting as soon as possible to discuss ‘how, when and what is required’.

So began an exceptionally dynamic collaboration between the three of them, who met in St Petersburg at Petipa’s house and also Vsevolozhsky’s, where Tchaikovsky played through scenes as he composed them. This process ran from November 1888 to May 1889: Petipa overcame his initial anxieties, thanks to Vsevolozhsky’s tactful ‘Arretez Marius…Vous pouvez tout’, with the choreographer supplying famously detailed instructions to the composer. There were inevitable disagreements (‘it was difficult for Petipa’, his assistant said) but also mutual admiration and laughter. The humour in The Sleeping Beauty starts from the moment the curtain rises, Petipa having asked for a march for Catalabutte that is ‘demi comique’ (a first night review thought the ‘mincing marquis’ ‘side-splitting’, the character of Catalabutte being allegedly based on a well-known court servant).

In summer 1889, the music now complete, the first night was set for December and work began on the staging. Vsevolozhsky had always taken a close interest in this: ‘We can’t use those drab designs – the second drawing looks like a prefab dacha from the firm Kokarev & Co. – give the artist vodka for inspiration and put him back to work’. The sets for the first scene were by the French painter Levogt, the last act an exact simulacrum of Versailles. Vsevolozhsky – his own sketch artist – designed over a hundred symbol-laden costumes, silks and velvets being imported from Lyons to give them the desired authentic luxury.

Rehearsals started in September, Petipa having spent the previous months choosing his cast and shaping his choreography to suit specific dancers. Tchaikovsky sometimes played the piano for soloists, ‘shortening, supplementing and changing’ his score to fit, said the first Aurora, Carlotta Brianza. Vsevolozhsky watched over it all, calming those who needed it, including the virtuoso Cecchetti, who had returned from a stay in Wardour Street to star in the double roles of Carabosse and the Bluebird, and who fretted about everything from casting and costumes, to how the conductor chose tempos for scenes he did not even appear in.

And so the ballet The Sleeping Beauty was born, Aurora growing from cradle to her joyful coming of age; idealized first love; and finally mature marriage and eventual coronation. Sixty-four members of the Imperial family attended the first night as did hundreds of courtiers. The auditorium lights were only gently dimmed so that the elegant audience and the stage magically blended into one. Although critics described Vsevolozhsky as ‘that insipid Frenchman’, the cast list as ‘foreigner worship’, and the plot as ‘They dance, they fall asleep, they dance again’, the spectacular show – with many special effects and a huge cast including dozens of extras, the garland waltz alone including 24 children – was still a great success. There were encores during the performance and Tchaikovsky was paid an immediate substantial bonus by Vsevolozhsky on the orders of the Tsar. The young artist Leon Bakst wrote: ‘I lived in a magic dream for three hours, intoxicated by fairies and princesses, by splendid palaces dripping in gold’.

The Lilac Fairy made her crucial appearance in an illuminated fountain reminiscent of those of the Sun King at Versailles. The production notes describe the climax of the ballet as ‘Apollo, in the costume of Louis XIV, lighted by the sun’s rays’. The ballet ends with the song of Louis XIV’s grandfather, Henri IV, which is something like an anthem for royalists.

But of course not all is calm and glorious. When Carabosse arrives, chaos ensues; one source has her usurping the throne, scattering the king and queen from their places, all because of a social grievance. The Sleeping Beauty is full of what Sally Banes has called ‘narratives of dread’. What, for example, might that first audience have felt when they saw the spindle? The spindle is not only a sexual symbol wielded by a ‘spinster’: spindle production in Russia increased some 15 times in the fifty years leading up to The Sleeping Beauty and industrialization triggered riots in the cities (many of the 40 million newly freed serfs had become enslaved again as factory workers). Alexander III’s father had been assassinated; St Petersburg during the 1880s was described by a visiting English businessman as ‘reeking of dynamite, a nest of invisible assassins’.

At the same time Russia was increasingly internationally isolated. Despite official disapproval and a lengthy froideur there was urgent lobbying in both countries for a rapprochement with France. Princess Radziwill, who divided her time between St Petersburg and Paris, tells us: ‘Huge sums of money were spent at that time both in France and in Russia in order to prepare the public mind… and very few people saw through it.’ Paris in 1888–9 enjoyed shows about a Russian general, Russian church singers in gorgeous costumes, splendid models of the Kremlin and Russian oil refineries, a panoramic entertainment from Siberia and concerts of new Russian music. And then The Sleeping Beauty was produced in St Petersburg.

The ballet was on everyone’s lips, the run completely sold out. Even the composer’s brother was once refused a ticket. Tchaikovsky’s friend Laroche described it as ‘a French tale accompanied by Russian music’. There were immediate plans to take the ballet to – where else – Paris. A year later, the French government sent their Exposition Française to Moscow, dedicating it to Alexander III who received a special gift showing La Belle France: in one hand she holds a sign saying Paris, while the other points towards Moscow. Two months after this the Tsar bared his head to La Marseillaise in front of senior French officers and a secret military treaty between France and Russia soon followed.

Within a couple of years the new alliance between France and Russia was complete and became public, uniting a secular, liberal republic with a theocratic, absolutist autocracy. Charles Lowe, the Tsar’s first biographer, wrote in 1895 of ‘this unnatural and impossible union between Beauty and the Beast, between Democracy and Despotism’ (Beauty and her Beast, of course, appear in the ballet’s last act procession).

The scholar Damien Mahiet, writing about what might be called ‘Sleeping Beauty 2’ (The Nutcracker, 1892, also by the troika) highlights how ‘the fairytale world offered a frame that not only promoted the absolutist aspirations of Alexander III’s regime, but also solved the symbolic challenge of a problematic alliance between republican France and tsarist Russia’. Historian Munro Price goes further:

“Might Sleeping Beauty be an allegory of a possible restoration of the French monarchy, to be performed on the centenary of the Revolution? Might Carabosse represent the Revolution, sending the princess (the French monarchy) to sleep for a hundred years, to be revived bythe prince? The fact that tricoteuses are evoked (might the ballet’s scripted law that no pins or needles are allowed within 100 versts of the palace symbolize the threat of violence to monarchy they evoke?) could be significant. Finally, the fact that there’s an apotheosis evoking the most glorious period of the French monarchy is striking”.

The first night of The Sleeping Beauty took place in January 1890 but only because the production had to be postponed three times (the complicated Versailles scenery and props were not ready). Had work finished on schedule, the first night would not have been in 1890 but, as planned, on 3 December 1889, a 100-year sleep after the French revolution of 1789.

Sebastian Cody is a writer and producer, currently researching unpublished sources for a forthcoming study of the first production of The Sleeping Beauty.

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