The Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tale With Palace Splendor

The Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tale With Palace Splendor

The audience saw the premiere of this ballet 132 years ago: even back then the production amazed with the luxury of costumes and sets, and attracted the Emperor’s attention.

Idea of the production and its implementation

The premiere performance of The Sleeping Beauty ballet was given on January 3, 1890, at the Mariinsky Theater. Choreographer Marius Petipa created a production to the music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The idea to transfer Charles Perrault's fairy tale to the ballet stage came from the director of the Imperial Theaters, Ivan Aleksandrovich Vsevolozhsky. Moreover, he participated in the work on the performance personally: wrote the libretto and created sketches of luxurious costumes for the artists. One day, Vsevolozhsky wrote to Tchaikovsky: 

“It would be nice, by the way, to write a ballet. I am planning to write a libretto on La belle au bois dormant after Perrault's fairy tale. I would like a mise en scène in the style of Louis XIV, which would be a musical fantasia written in the spirit of Lully, Bach, Rameau, etc. In the last act there would have to be quadrilles for all Perrault's fairy-tale characters—these should include Puss-in-Boots, Hop o' My Thumb, Cinderella, Bluebeard, etc.”

This ballet went down in the history of the Mariinsky Theater as one of the most expensive premieres. 42,000 rubles were spent on the production with costumes and scenery in the Louis XIV style. At that time, the amount was equal to a quarter of the annual budget of St. Petersburg theaters. So, what was this luxurious premiere like?  

Work on the production and the Emperor’s "very nice"

Tchaikovsky received the script plan from Petipa in 1889. The choreographer detailed the structure of the future performance with a prologue and three acts, prepared recommendations for musical accompaniment up to the number of bars. For example, the episode with Princess Aurora pricking her finger was described as follows:  

“In horror, she no longer dances - this is not a dance, but a dizzying, insane movement as if from a tarantula bite! Finally, she falls breathless. This frenzy should last no more than 24 to 32 bars.”

Many people knew that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was working on a new ballet. But the name of the author of the libretto remained a mystery for a long time. Before the premiere, the theater released a program saying: "The content is borrowed from the fairy tales by Perrault." It became known that the libretto was co-authored by Marius Petipa and Ivan Vsevolozhsky only after the first show. 

The final phase of the preparations for the premiere began in the autumn of 1889. At this time, Petipa, Vsevolozhsky and Tchaikovsky, as well as the conductor Riccardo Drigo, met at the theater regularly. They were discussing the sets and costumes, while the artists were honing their parts. Ivan Vsevolozhsky's deputy Vladimir Pogozhev described later how tough those last months before the premiere were:  

“First, all these changes in costumes and additions to sets and props, then adjustments of machine tricks and movement of the panorama, and then inserts and additions to the choreographic composition, and finally, the necessary proofreading of the score and orchestral parts. The most trouble was caused by the installation of the wonderful picture of the sleeping kingdom. All this unnerved Vsevolozhsky and Petipa, as well as the artists and the administration, and, of course, was reflected in Tchaikovsky.”

The dress rehearsal of the performance became historic because Emperor Alexander III accompanied by his courtiers visited it. The enormous responsibility lay both on the creators of the ballet and on the performers of the production. It is known that after the final chords the Tsar expressed his opinion. 

Alexander III said about the production: “Very nice.”

Tchaikovsky, talking about this event in his diary, provided the sovereign's remark with five exclamation marks. Pyotr Ilyich was apparently outraged by such a restrained assessment of the enormous work done.  

The high-profile premiere and first reviews from the public

The leading ballet dancers of the Mariinsky Theater took part in the premiere show of The Sleeping Beauty. The main part of beautiful Aurora was performed by the Italian ballerina Carlotta Brianza. At that time, she collaborated with the St. Petersburg theater under a contract. Pavel Gerdt, who had held the position of the leading dancer of the Mariinsky Theater since 1865, took the stage as Prince Desire. The opposing Lilac and Carabosse Fairies were danced by the choreographer's daughter Marie Petipa and Italian artist and choreographer Enrico Cecchetti, respectively. 

The love story of Aurora and Desire was followed by the third act that turned out to be a real fairy tale parade, where characters of the fairy tales familiar from childhood replaced each other. The role of the White Cat was played by Maria Anderson, and her partner - Puss in Boots - was Alfred Bekefi. Little Red Riding Hood (Klavdia Kulichevskaya) and the Gray Wolf, Cinderella and Prince Charming also appeared on stage in the third act. The Bluebird (Pyotr Vladimirov) and Princess Florine took part in the classic pas de deux. The procession of characters of the French storyteller Charles Perrault was continued by the dance of Hop-O’-My-Thumb together with his brothers, all of them were students of the St. Petersburg Theater School. Moreover, there were the Jewel Fairies shining in the third act: Sapphire, Silver, Gold and Diamond.

The first assessments of the public varied. For example, St. Petersburg Leaflet No. 3, which came out the next day after the premiere, said:  

“Everything has been done for the eyes, but absolutely nothing for the choreography. The music by Mr. Tchaikovsky is not at all suitable for dancing. You can't even dance to it. In general, The Sleeping Beauty will be of interest to those who are not looking for a choreographer in ballet, but only entertainment for the eyes in the form of scenery and costumes.”

There were a lot of rave reviews too. The audience, indeed, appreciated the ballet, which was evidenced by the fact that in the first two seasons, The Sleeping Beauty was seen on stage of the Mariinsky Theater about 50 times. The subsequent stage life of the ballet turned out to be long and fascinating: choreographers of the leading theaters all over the world undertook to stage the production, for example, Yuri Grigorovich created three versions for the Bolshoi Theater.

Today, The Sleeping Beauty is a timeless classic, which both experienced adult ballet lovers and young spectators, who are just discovering the world of ballet, enjoy watching.