Cesare Pugni (1802–70) made his debut as a composer at La Scala in 1826 with the opera Elerz e Zulmida. In the 1840s he worked closely with the choreographer Jules Perrot (1810–92) in Paris and in London, creating some of the most renowned ballets of the 19th century, a number of which still find their place in some modern repertories. Pugni later followed Perrot to St Petersburg, and became official composer of the Imperial Russian theatres. Some of his earlier ballets were transferred to St Petersburg, and he also composed many new works for that city.
Along with Perrot, Pugni also worked with Arthur Saint-Léon (1821–70), Paolo Taglioni (1808–84), Marius Petipa (1818–1910), and some of the greatest dancers of the century. His most famous collaboration, with Marius Petipa, lasted until the composer’s death on 26 January 1870. Pugni was extremely prolific, composing more than 300 ballets, a dozen operas, over 40 masses, other polyphonic works and a few symphonies. He was very popular with the public, who were delighted by his direct uncomplicated style, with its attractive melodies and infectious rhythms.
Ondine, choreographed and danced by Perrot and Fanny Cerrito, was premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1845. It is a variant on the famous water nymph story Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. The ballet became famous for the conception of the generic scene type of the Pas de l’Ombre, where the nymph sees her own shadow in the moonlight for the first time and tries to catch it. The ballet was praised for its magnificent décor and for Pugni’s score: “. . . the musical accompaniment which describes the rise and fall of the waves is eminently characteristic and beautiful: the very ripple of the flow, and the rushing sound of the ebb over the pebbly strand, are heard and fully satisfy the ear”.
Esmeralda, choreographed by Perrot and premiered with Perrot, Carlotta Grisi and Saint-Léon in the principal roles, was first performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London in 1844. The ballet is based on the story of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. It was reasonably successful, and Grisi was pronounced the perfect personification of the gypsy girl Esmeralda. The ballet later became immensely popular in Russia; Fanny Elssler enjoyed one of her biggest triumphs in the title role. Pugni’s music successfully evokes an atmosphere of Medieval Paris, the changing moods of the story, and the delicate vulnerability of the heroine. For Petipa’s production of 1888, Riccardo Drigo was asked to compose several new numbers, including the Esmeralda Pas de Deux and the Diana and Acteon Pas de Deux, which became very popular in their own right.
The Pas de quatre was a divertissement choreographed by Perrot for four of the leading ballerinas of the time, and premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1845. Created by Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito and Lucile Grahn, this plotless ballet epitomizes the Romantic cult of the ballerina. Pugni’s variations were exquisitely tailored to the character and particular skills of each of the illustrious protagonists. There were four performances of the Pas de quatre with the original dancers, and there have been many revivals, starting in 1847 (when the part created by Grahn was given to Carolina Rosati), and continuing through to later reconstructions in the 20th century.
Catarina, ou La Fille du bandit was choreographed by Perrot, with the principal roles created by Lucile Grahn, Perrot and Louis Gosselin. It was first performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1846. The plot revolves around the love of the painter Salvator Rosa for Catarina, a bandit chief. The ballet grew in popularity due to the fascination and humanity of the unconventional characters from an original story based on the artist’s life, and the incomparable elegance of its mass movements. Founded on the contrast between feminine grace and military precision, this work was one of the greatest triumphs of both Lucile Grahn and Fanny Elssler.
Théolinda, ou Le Lutin de la vallée, an opera-ballet in 2 acts and 3 scenes, with choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon, and music by Eugène Gautier, was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1853. Later Saint-Léon reworked the piece as Théolinda l’Orpheline for the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow in 1862, with the score arranged by Pugni. Saint-Léon chose the new young star Marfa Muravieva to create the title role. The work was revived in 1865 with Praskovia Lebedeva, again with Lebedeva in 1866, and once more, in 1870, this time with Ekaterina Vazem. Pugni’s adaptation of the music became popular in Russia, and was published in Saint-Petersburg by Stellowsky.
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Robert Ignatius Letellier has specialized in the music and literature of the Romantic Period. He has studied the work of Giacomo Meyerbeer (a four-volume English edition of his diaries, a collection of critical and biographical studies, a guide to research, two readings of the operas, as well as compiling and introducing editions of the complete libretti and non-operatic texts, and a selection of manuscripts facsimiles). He has also written on the ballets of Ludwig Minkus, compiled a series of scores on the Romantic Ballet, a sourcebook on the French opéra-comique, a study of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, and edited anthologies of his overtures, ballet music, and a series of his operatic vocal scores.