Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on Blu-ray
Svetlana Zakharova, Sergei Filin, Gennady Yanin, Maria Aleksandrova (dancers)
Soloists of the Bolshoï Ballet & Orchestra of the Bolshoï Theatre, Alexander Sotnikov
Choreographer: Pierre Lacotte after Marius Petipa.
Bel Air Classiques present Petipa’s extravaganza, The Pharaoh’s Daughter, in the stunning production by Pierre Lacotte. This Russian ballet enjoys a special place in history. Premiered in 1862, this grand spectacle, which lasted four hours and featured a cast of 400, was Petipa’s first truly successful ballet and secured his future in St Petersburg, where he went on to
become the most influential choreographer of the 19th century. Until recently, The Pharaoh’s Daughter was also one of Petipa’s lost ballets; it hadn’t been performed since 1928. In 2000 the French choreographer Pierre Lacotte premièred a restored version at the Bolshoi Theatre, after much research into the original, resulting in a shorter although still sumptuous extravaganza. Ballet scenarios don't come much sillier than The Pharaoh's Daughter, which turns on the story of British Egyptologist Lord Wilson who, after a reckless hit of opium, dreams himself back to the time of the pharaohs. Wilson falls in love with Aspicia, the ballet's titular heroine, and when she throws herself into the Nile to avoid being married off to the King of Nubia, Wilson is left to face death by snakebite. Tragedy is averted by the Nile's underwater king who restores Aspicia to Wilson's arms.
R E V I E W:
La Fille du Pharaon
Alexander Sotnikov, cond; Bolshoi Th O
Live: Moscow 10/2003
The Pharaoh’s Daughter
was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1862 and the ballet was first seen at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow two years later. The libretto was based in part on
Le Roman de la Momie,
a story by Théophile Gautier, and Marius Petipa, widely regarded as the greatest ballet master of all time, created the choreography. I won’t trouble you with a detailed plot synopsis but the basic premise is as follows. Lord Wilson, a young Englishman in a pith helmet, and his manservant, John Bull, are visiting the Egyptian antiquities. A sandstorm blows up and the pair must take shelter in one of the great pyramids. They are in the company of a caravan of Arab traders who take advantage of the weather delay to light up their opium pipes; Lord Wilson requests a toke and, yes, he inhales. One of those vivid 19th-century opium dreams ensues, this one with a substantially happier ending than that afforded Berlioz’s protagonist in
The princess Aspicia comes to life, emerging from her sarcophagus, and young Wilson, now a skimpily clad Egyptian hottie called Taor, is smitten. Difficulties ensue, as her father (the Pharaoh, of course) has promised her to the King of Nubia. But it all works out. The scenario allows for lots of grand spectacle; the original production ran about four hours.
La Fille du Pharaon
in 1885 and 1898; it then disappeared until this new production, choreographed by Pierre Lacotte for the Bolshoi Ballet, came along in 2000. Although some of Petipa’s choreographic notes from 1898 did survive, Lacotte’s reconstruction is largely new dances. “For me, what is important is to resurrect not the letter but the spirit of the age,” states Lacotte. This he does, from the fake-looking painted scenery, to the notably low-tech “sacred snake,” to the cringe-inducing Nubians in blackface. (I guess you can get away with that sort of thing in Russia.) The choreography—solos, small ensembles, and numbers for the corps—is wonderful and the dancing by the two leads, Svetlana Zahharova and Sergei Filin, is simply spectacular. Lacotte has trimmed the total length of the ballet’s three acts to well under two hours, and the work is theatrically taut in this iteration.
The music is the work of Cesare Pugni (1802–70) who, though he also tried his hand at opera and instrumental music, can safely be called a “ballet composer,” having provided material for more than 300 such efforts. Pugni, music director at La Scala for a brief period in the 1830s (reportedly leaving town because of a gambling problem), spent some fruitful years in London and ultimately ended up as the ballet composer for the Imperial Theaters of St. Petersburg.
The New Grove
notes that Pugni’s music is characterized by “its subservience to the functional requirements of the choreography, a subservience which is, at the same time, its greatest artistic limitation.” This strikes me as a bit harsh because, while I can’t imagine wanting to listen to the entire score straight through without anything to look at, the material has melodic distinction and undeniable dramatic effectiveness: the tender calm of the music for Aspicia and Taor’s final
pas de deux
is very touching and there’s an appealingly florid flute solo accompanying act II’s concluding selection, “Évasion du Palaise.”
The orchestral playing isn’t at all heavy-handed and the sound is clear and detailed. The high-definition video serves the marvelous costumes (and the lame sets) well. Negotiating the onscreen menu to get from act to act isn’t intuitive, but you’ll figure it out.
FANFARE: Andrew Quint [Reviewing Blu-ray version]
Works on This Recording
Pharaoh's Daughter by Cesare Pugni
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra
Written: 1862; Russia
Date of Recording: 10/2003
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