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8.554062 - French Ballet Favourites
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French Ballet Favourites

France has a long tradition of ballet, whether as a separate entertainment or as an indispensable part of French opera. An element of French dance became part of the late Baroque musical synthesis of Bach and Handel, and, in a later generation, provided the technical basis for the Russian ballet. The Paris Académie royale de danse was established in 1661 and the associated school, which still continues, in 1713. The art of ballet in France reached a new height in the middle of the nineteenth century, coinciding with the early career of Léo Delibes, who entered the Conservatoire in 1848 and five years later took a position secured for him by Adolphe Adam, composer of Giselle, as accompanist at the Théâtre-Lyrique. Like many other composers he was employed also as an organist, from 1862 until1871 at Saint-Jean-Saint-François, but his primary interest lay in music for the theatre. For the Théâtre-Lyrique he wrote comic operas and for the Folies-Nouvelles and other companies operettas, while continuing to compose music for the church.

Appointment as accompanist at the Opéra in 1863 brought Delibes other opportunities. He was allowed to associate with Minkus in the composition of the ballet La source in 1866, a task in which he was so successful that a commission followed for a divertissement, Le pas des fleurs, to be added to Adolphe Adam's Le corsaire. Delibes won his greatest popular success with the score for Coppélia, commissioned for 1870 and his first complete ballet score. This was followed six years later by Sylvia and in 1883 by the important opera Lakmé. His last opera was Kassya, orchestrated by Massenet and staged two years after the composer's death in 1891.

The ballet Coppélia was based on a story by the German romantic writer and composer E.T.A.Hoffmann, Der Sandmann, a tale that also served Offenbach in the first act of Les contes de Hoffmann. In the original version Nathanael is subject to brooding melancholy, intensely aware of a sense of evil. As a child he had been terrified of the Sandman, who brings sleep to children and whom he had identified with a late-night visitor to his father's house, the lawyer Coppelius. He finds out that his father and Coppelius conduct chemical experiments, in the course of one of which his father is killed. In later life he is troubled by the barometer-seller Coppola, whom he identifies with Coppelius. From him he buys a telescope and sees the daughter of Professor Spalanzini, the beautiful Olimpia, whom he later discovers to be a clockwork puppet. Nathanael has been in love with Clara, to whom he now returns, but in madness tries to kill her, while the voice of Coppelius lures him to his own death.

The form of the story used by Charles Nuitter and Arthur Saint-Léon, the former the archivist at the Opéra and the latter a distinguished choreographer, with an interest in national dances admirably shown in Coppélia, is more frivolous. The hero Franz is no haunted figure, while Coppelius seems a relatively harmless character, in spite of his strange delusion. Nevertheless dancers such as Karsavina have succeeded in investing Coppélia with something of the tragedy of Hoffmann's original.

Coppélia was first produced at the Paris Opéra on 25th May 1870, an ominous year. The sixteen-year-old Giuseppina Bozzacchi as Swanilda danced her first important rôle that took her from the corps de ballet to the position of prima ballerina at a remarkably early age and Eugénie Fiocre, première danseuse of the Opéra, who specialised in travesty rôles, took the part of Franz, establishing an initial travesty tradition for the part. François Dauty took the character part of Dr. Coppelius. The ballet enjoyed immediate success and continued in the Paris repertoire. Bozzacchi danced the first eighteen performances, but the Opéra closed at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and two months later she was dead of a fever contracted during the German siege of the city. The part of Swanilda was later danced by Léontine Beaugrand, who had earlier made her début in Taglioni's Le papillon.

Sylvia ou La nymphe de Diane was first staged at the Paris Opéra on 14th June 1846. Choreography was by Louis Mérante, a pupil of Lucien Petipa, brother of Marius Petipa. Mérante had been premier danseur at the Opéra, then from 1869 maître de ballet and from 1873 choreographer. He created the part of the shepherd Aminta in Sylvia, adapting its choreographic demands to his abilities at the age of forty-eight. Designs were by Jules Chéret, August Rubé, Philippe Chaperon and Eugène Lacose and the libretto, based on Tasso's Aminta, by Jules Barbier and the Baron de Reinach. The first staging gave the virtuoso rôle of Sylvia to the Italian dancer Rita Sangalli, with Louise Marquet as Diane and Marie Sanlaville in the travesti rôle of Eros. The ballet was the first such production at the newly built Palais Garnier.

In the second act, set in the grotto of Orion, Sylvia repels the hunter's advances. She sits with him at a banquet and makes him and his servants drunk, while she dances in honour of Bacchus. Orion and his men fall asleep and Sylvia now calls on Eros, dedicating her weapons to him. The god of love appears to save her and the walls of the grotto disappear, leaving her free to go.

The third act takes place on the sea-shore near the temple of Diana, the chaste goddess to whom Sylvia has been devoted. There is a celebration in honour of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, and of the satyr Silenus. Aminta wanders among the revellers. A young pirate sails in to the shore and disembarks with his crew, among them one who dances for Aminta, revealing herself as Sylvia. Orion appears, seeking to capture Sylvia once more, but she, with Aminta, takes refuge in the temple of Diana. Orion attempts to batter the door of the temple down with his axe, but is greeted by a sudden storm and the appearance of the angry goddess, who shoots him with her arrow. He, however, accuses Sylvia of infidelity to her vows. At this moment the young pirate, raising the lamp he holds, reveals himself as Eros. There is a vision in the clouds of Endymion, the mortal that Diana, goddess of the moon, had once loved, and she is persuaded to pardon the lovers, who are now united in her palace, where Diana and Eros now preside over the final rejoicing.

The music of Sylvia has much to recommend it, apart from the ballet itself. The Pizzicati from the Act III divertissement has enjoyed a fame of its own, while other elements in the ballet, the shepherds' Pastorale in Act I and the celebration of the pleasures of hunting and the defiance of Eros in Les chasseresses, with the set dances for Sylvia herself, notably the Valse lente: L'escarpolette (Slow Waltz: The Swing), where she swings in the branches under the moonlight.

Once known as the French Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns was both versatile and prolific, although in France, at least, he outlived his reputation. Of his thirteen operas, the biblical Samson et Dalila remains in repertoire. English history provided a subject for a number of continental composers in the nineteenth century, notably, of course, Donizetti, with his operatic studies of Queen Elisabeth, Mary Queen of Scots and Anne Boleyn. Saint-Saëns contented himself with an opera on the subject of Henry VIII, staged at the Opéra on 5th March 1883, two years after his separation from his young wife. The opera, with a libretto by Lucien Détroyat and Armand Silvestre, has running through it an English theme that the composer had found in the library of Buckingham Palace and deals with the proposed marriage of the king with Anne Boleyn, who, unhistorically, is apparently in love with the Spanish ambassador, Don Gomez di Feria. She agrees to marry the king, in order to become queen herself. King Henry now divorces his legal wife, Catherine of Aragon, who acquires a letter that has passed between Anne Boleyn and Don Gomez. Anne visits the dying Catherine, feigning repentance, while Henry and Don Gomez also both attempt to gain possession of the letter, which Catherine, on her death-bed, destroys. Henry remains suspicious and threatens to have Anne Boleyn executed, if she prove unfaithful. The ballet-divertissement from the second act of the opera the Fête populaire, is of suitable variety for the occasion, a Gallic perception of the musical variety of the British Isles, with a gathering of the clans, Scottish dances, a rather English Scherzo and what might pass for a final Irish jig.

The son of a distinguished piano-teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, Adolphe Adam was born in Paris in 1803. His contemporary popular success depended on a series of compositions for the stage, with much of his later work rendered necessary by the failure of a theatre venture in the revolution of 1848 and the consequent need to pay off heavy debts. These were cleared by the time of his death in 1858. The best known of Adam's eighty works for the stage remains his ballet Giselle or Les Wilis, an archetypal romantic ballet, with ingredients that had already appeared in La Sylphide and were to re-appear in various forms as the century went on.

Giselle is based on a legend according to which the ghosts of unmarried girls return to seek revenge on the living. The Wilis had already been described in a story in Heinrich Heine's De l'Allemagne, although Heine received no credit for Giselle. The immediate inspiration for the ballet came from Théophile Gautier, spurred by his infatuation with the dancer Carlotta Grisi. Elements from Victor Hugo were to be incorporated in a libretto that was realised by the writer Jules Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges in three days, while Adam took a week to sketch the music and three to complete it, making some use of earlier material. The choreography was devised by the Paris Opéra ballet-master Jean Coralli, with Giselle's dances choreographed by Carlotta Grisi's teacher and lover Jules Perrot. Designs were by Pierre Ciceri, who had also designed the sets for La Sylphide. The ballet was first produced on 18th June 1841 at the Opéra, the Théâtre de l'Académie royale de musique, when Grisi danced Giselle, Lucien Petipa Albrecht and Adèle Dumilâtre the Queen of the Wilis, Myrthe. Various changes have been made in the ballet since 1841, not least in a number of versions given in Russia, with an early re-staging there by Perrot with Fanny Elssler, a rival Giselle, and Marius Petipa. The latter later made his own choreographic contribution to the ballet in later productions. The score includes interpolated scenes by Friedrich Burgmüller, who is best known for the peasant pas de deux in Act I of Giselle.


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