French Ballet Favourites

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French BalletFavourites

France has a long tradition of ballet, whether as a separateentertainment or as an indispensable part of French opera. An element of Frenchdance became part of the late Baroque musical synthesis of Bach and Handel,and, in a later generation, provided the technical basis for the Russianballet. The Paris Academie royale de danse was established in 1661 and theassociated school, which still continues, in 1713. The art of ballet in Francereached a new height in the middle of the nineteenth century, coinciding withthe early career of Leo Delibes, who entered the Conservatoire in 1848 and fiveyears later took a position secured for him by Adolphe Adam, composer of Giselle,as accompanist at the The?ótre-Lyrique. Like many other composers he wasemployed also as an organist, from 1862 until1871 at Saint-Jean-Saint-Fran?ºois,but his primary interest lay in music for the theatre. For the The?ótre-Lyriquehe wrote comic operas and for the Folies-Nouvelles and other companiesoperettas, while continuing to compose music for the church.

Appointment as accompanist at the Opera in 1863 brought Delibes otheropportunities. He was allowed to associate with Minkus in the composition ofthe ballet La source in 1866, a task in which he was so successful thata commission followed for a divertissement, Le pas des fleurs, to beadded to Adolphe Adam's Le corsaire. Delibes won his greatest popularsuccess with the score for Coppelia, commissioned for 1870 and his firstcomplete ballet score. This was followed six years later by Sylvia andin 1883 by the important opera Lakme. His last opera was Kassya, orchestratedby Massenet and staged two years after the composer's death in 1891.

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

The form of the story used by Charles Nuitter and Arthur Saint-Leon, theformer the archivist at the Opera and the latter a distinguished choreographer,with an interest in national dances admirably shown in Coppelia, is morefrivolous. The hero Franz is no haunted figure, while Coppelius seems arelatively harmless character, in spite of his strange delusion. Neverthelessdancers such as Karsavina have succeeded in investing Coppelia withsomething of the tragedy of Hoffmann's original.

Coppelia was first produced at the Paris Opera on 25th May 1870, an ominous year.

The sixteen-year-old Giuseppina Bozzacchi as Swanilda danced her firstimportant r??le that took her from the corps de ballet to the position of primaballerina at a remarkably early age and Eugenie Fiocre, premi?¿re danseuse ofthe Opera, who specialised in travesty r??les, took the part of Franz,establishing an initial travesty tradition for the part. Fran?ºois Dauty tookthe character part of Dr. Coppelius. The ballet enjoyed immediate success andcontinued in the Paris repertoire. Bozzacchi danced the first eighteenperformances, but the Opera closed at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian Warand two months later she was dead of a fever contracted during the German siegeof the city. The part of Swanilda was later danced by Leontine Beaugrand, whohad earlier made her debut in Taglioni's Le papillon.

Sylvia ou La nymphe de Diane was first staged at the Paris Opera on 14th June1846. Choreography was by Louis Merante, a pupil of Lucien Petipa, brother ofMarius Petipa. Merante had been premier danseur at the Opera, then from 1869ma?«tre de ballet and from 1873 choreographer. He created the part of theshepherd Aminta in Sylvia, adapting its choreographic demands to hisabilities at the age of forty-eight. Designs were by Jules Cheret, August Rube,Philippe Chaperon and Eug?¿ne Lacose and the libretto, based on Tasso's Aminta,by Jules Barbier and the Baron de Reinach. The first staging gave thevirtuoso r??le of Sylvia to the Italian dancer Rita Sangalli, with LouiseMarquet as Diane and Marie Sanlaville in the travesti r??le of Eros. The balletwas the first such production at the newly built Palais Garnier.

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

The third act takes place on the sea-shore near the temple of Diana, thechaste goddess to whom Sylvia has been devoted. There is a celebration inhonour 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 anddisembarks with his crew, among them one who dances for Aminta, revealingherself 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 thedoor of the temple down with his axe, but is greeted by a sudden storm and theappearance 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 theclouds 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 theballet itself. The Pizzicati from the Act III divertissement has enjoyeda fame of its own, while other elements in the ballet, the shepherds' Pastoralein Act I and the celebration of the pleasures of hunting and the defianceof Eros in Les chasseresses, with the set dances for Sylviaherself, notably the Valse lente: L'escarpolette (Slow Waltz: TheSwing), where she swings in the branches under the moonlight.

Once known as the French Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Sa?½ns was bothversatile and prolific, although in France, at least, he outlived hisreputation. Of his thirteen operas, the biblical Samson et Dalila remainsin repertoire. English history provided a subject for a number of continentalcomposers in the nineteenth century, notably, of course, Donizetti, with hisoperatic studies of Queen Elisabeth, Mary Queen of Scots and Anne Boleyn.

Saint-Sa?½ns contented himself with an opera on the subject of Henry VIII,staged at the Opera on 5th March 1883, two years after his separation from hisyoung wife. The opera, with a libretto by Lucien Detroyat and Armand Silvestre,has running through it
Disc: 1
Sylvia, Act III
1 Act I: Prelude
2 Act I: Valse
3 Act I: Mazurka
4 Act I: Ballade
5 Act I: Theme slave varie
6 Act I: Czardas - Danse hongroise
7 Act II: Valse de la poupee
8 Act III: Marche de la cloche
9 Act I: Scene d'Hilarion
10 Act I: Andante
11 Act I: Valse
12 Act I: Allegro moderato
13 Act I: Allegro un peu loure
14 Act I: Galop general
15 Act II: Ensemble de Willis
16 Act II: Lever du soleil et arrivee de la cour
17 Waltz
18 Act I: Prelude
19 Act I: Les chasseresses (Fanfare)
20 Act I: Intermezzo
21 Act I: Valse lente
22 Act II: Danse des Ethiopiens
23 Act III: Pizzicati
24 Act III: Marche
25 Act III: Cortege de Bacchus
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