The Sleeping Beauty, Ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Mention Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s name and one immediately thinks of his ballets. But in his own lifetime Tchaikovsky was revered primarily as a composer of symphonies. His first ballet, Swan Lake, much loved today, was considered to be an unmitigated disaster when it was originally staged in 1877. It wasn’t because audiences didn’t like what Tchaikovsky had composed: in the Romantic era, they simply did not expect the music to draw their attention away from the dance.
Tchaikovsky was a radical, convinced that ballet could place choreography and music on an equal footing. So when Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the Director of the Imperial Theatres in Russia, approached him with a new scenario in the late spring of 1888, eleven years after Swan Lake, he leapt at the chance to test himself again in the genre.
The result was The Sleeping Beauty. Adapted from Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, La belle au bois dormant, Tchaikovsky adored the story. He had no children of his own, but the history books record that the composer, while orchestrating the ballet, would happily take breaks to play games with the three-year-old daughter of one of his friend’s servants. The ballet has a magical childlike quality and sense of wonder that, in part, may well have been due to these welcome interludes from his work.
It is of course every young girl’s dream to marry her prince, but in The Sleeping Beauty true love comes at a price. A wicked fairy, Carabosse, is infuriated that she has not been invited to Princess Aurora’s christening. And as a result she casts a spell. The princess will prick her finger on a spindle and not live beyond her sixteenth birthday. The Lilac Fairy commutes Carabosse’s curse to an enchanted sleep. The princess will not die, but only the kiss of the man who will become her true love will release her from her slumber.
Following the ballet’s premiere on 15 January 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky was asked to see the Tsar, Alexander III. What wouldn’t one give to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting? Having poured heart and soul into the work, the composer was no doubt excited to find out what the Russian Emperor had thought of it. When he said, quite simply, that it had been “very nice”, Tchaikovsky must have been livid.
Those who come to enjoy this wonderful ballet at the Venice Opera House will feel rather differently. To say that The Sleeping Beauty has stood the test of time would be an understatement. It has inspired choreographers ever since its creation to test their mettle against Tchaikovsky’s genius for composition. For many, Tchaikovsky’s legacy continues to make ballet the most compelling of all the arts.