Saturday, December 17, 2011

From France to England via Imperial Russia (1)

This blog has celebrated the last two Christmases with ‘diversions’ about folk tales written down in foreign lands, which by long process of translation and adaptation have ended up in a most unlikely form – one might say a travesty – the peculiar British theatrical institution called the Christmas pantomime. The first was Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp from The Thousand and One Nights, and the second was Cinderella from Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose. To find those posts, enter aladdin or cinderella in the Search box on the right. Both are well represented on the billboards this Christmas

This year I’m turning to another Christmas tradition in the British theatre. But whereas pantomime is popular entertainment, with its performers drawn from music hall –
“Aladdin brings panto fun to Llandudno [in North Wales]”

“This Cinderella is sexy, it's sassy and it's funny. Filthy-funny in parts, which is something of a departure for the Playhouse but not for the Liverpool audience. ” –
the other tradition is a true art form and appeals to a different social and intellectual class. It’s the Christmas ballet. Parents take their children to the panto for a good laugh; they take them to the ballet for wonderment and inspiration. The Christmas ballet audiences are sprinkled with children, especially little girls who dream of one day emulating the sylph-like dancers.

The favourite Christmas ballets year after year are The Sleeping Beauty (henceforth Beauty for short) and Nutcracker. I’ll deal with Beauty for now and leave Nutcracker for another year. Like Cinderella's, Beauty's lineage goes back to the 17th-century French writer Charles Perrault, who "laid the foundations for a new literary genre, the fairy tale, with his works derived from pre-existing folk tales." Perrault gave it the title La belle au bois dormant; notice that au bois (in the forest) is dropped from the standard English title. Its route to the London stage is, however, very different from and much longer than that of the pantomimes.

By the late 18th century, the popularity of Perrault's Tales had spread across Europe and had reached Russia. They were published in Russian translation in 1765 (see References), and the publisher was the new Moscow Imperial University, founded in 1755, which says something about Perrault's prestige. They merged with a rich tradition of native Russian fairy tales (see the Wikipedia reference below).

That was the first stage. The next in this roundabout series of cultural transformations was not between languages but between media. Beauty became one the most famous and enduring of ballets, a brilliant jewel bequeathed to the world by Tsarist Russia.

Everyone who likes classical music knows that the music for Beauty was composed by Tchaikovsky, for it is often played as an orchestral masterpiece in its own right. Tchaikovsky knew the story, but whether he learnt it from Perrault doesn't really matter, as we shall see. Though Tchaikovsky is considered a Russian composer, his music, despite a Russian flavour in the melodies, is really firmly part of the Western European orchestral tradition that he and other 19th-century composers imported. Indeed some early critics thought his music for Beauty was too symphonic for a ballet.

Balletomanes are accustomed to seeing the name of the original choreographer of Beauty on the theatre programmes even today: Marius Petipa. He had a long career as Premier Maître de Ballet of the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres, a position he held from 1871 until 1903, but before that he had built up a reputation in Western Europe. He "is considered to be the most influential ballet master and choreographer of ballet that has ever lived." In his case there was no need of a translation from French, because Petipa was French. He was born in Marseille. And the ballet technique he taught wasn't Russian; it was the French and Italian tradition that he had brought with him – with an occasional touch of Spanish, for he spent several years of his youth in Spain. Another cultural transfer.

Then there was the third man, somebody far less well-known though he too played a crucial role in creating the ballet. His name was Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky. As Director of the Imperial Theatres, it was he who commissioned the ballet from Tchaikovsky and Petipa for the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. (Incidentally, Beauty is on the programme of the Mariinsky this week.) Besides being a competent administrator, he loved the theatre. Actually he made a triple contribution to Beauty: he was the impresario, he designed the costumes for the original production (see photo) and he wrote the scenario from which Tchaikovsky and Petipa worked. What was Vsevolozhsky's source? The 19th-century Russian elite were Francophiles and French was widely used among them.
"All libretti and programs of works performed on the stages of the Imperial Theatres were titled in French, which was the official language of the Emperor's Court, as well as the language in which balletic terminology is derived."
Therefore, although the Russian translation of Perrault was available, it's just as likely that Vsevolozhsky read it in French. In any case, there was a bilingual edition of the Voinov translation published as early as 1797. Furthermore, Vsevolozhsky also used another version of the story, the one that appears in German with the title Dornröschen in the folk story collection of the Brothers Grimm.

Hence the ballet that reached the stage of the Mariinsky in 1890 was an amalgam of several traditions, made with or without translations but certainly with cultural transfers: French and German fairy story literature, Western European orchestral music and French and Italian dance. All brought together by Vsevolozhsky to satisfy his Russian patrons' taste for spectacle.

To be concluded.

Angie Sammons. First night: Cinderella/Liverpool Playhouse. Liverpool Confidential, 13 December 2011.

David Waddington. Review: Aladdin brings panto fun to Llandudno. North Wales Pioneer, 12 December 2011.

Charles Perrault. Wikipedia.

Charles Perrault. сказки с нравоучение. Translated by Lev Voinov. Moscow: Moscow Imperial University, 1768.

Category: Russian fairy tales. Wikipedia.

Ivan Vsevolozhsky. Wikipedia.

Mariinsky Theatre Official Website.

Brothers Grimm. Dornröschen. In Kinder- und Hausmärchen, 1st edition, 1812.

Some of Vsevolozhsky's costumes for the original production of Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 1890. Source: Wikipedia.