The Sleeping Beauty, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
When in the late spring of 1888 Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of Russia’s Imperial Theatres, approached Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to write the music for a new ballet, he could not have been certain of the composer’s response. Tchaikovsky’s first work in the genre, Swan Lake, more than a decade previously, had not been a success, yet Tchaikovsky set about his new commission with an enthusiasm and confidence that was clear to all around him.
The story chosen to provide the libretto for the ballet was the Brothers Grimm’s adaptation of Charles Perrault’s timeless fairy tale, La Belle au bois dormant. After not being invited to Princess Aurora’s christening, Carabosse, in an act of spite, predicts that the Princess will one day prick her finger on a cursed spindle and die. The Lilac Fairy cannot undo Carabosse’s spell, but she is able to mitigate it: a profound sleep rather than death will befall the Princess, that is until a prince can be found who will release her from her enchantment with a kiss.
First performed on 15 January 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, The Sleeping Beauty is a work of scintillating visual beauty perfectly matched by the sheer gossamer of Tchaikovsky’s gift for melody and orchestration. Thanks to Vsevolozhsky’s decision to include characters from many of Perrault’s other magical stories, including Puss in Boots and Little Red Riding Hood, the ballet’s original choreographer, Marius Petipa, was able to create variation after variation, particularly in the glorious wedding scene in the ballet’s final act.
It is often said that the twentieth century rejected the froth of classical ballet - often criticised for its lack of dramatic tension - yet many of its major exponents from Stravinsky to Balanchine to Diaghilev felt compelled to return to the grace of The Sleeping Beauty. The reality is that its story does keep us in suspense. When the sixteen-year-old Aurora is approached by several perfectly eligible bachelors, she decides to hold out for true love and in so doing condemns not just herself but the entire royal court to a century of sleep. No wonder they celebrate when they are finally awakened.
The triumph of good over evil never seems to lose its appeal. But a more compelling reason still to revisit The Sleeping Beauty in its staging at the Rome Opera House’s Teatro Costanzi is to see a ballet for which every bar of the music was written to interpret its narrative. We live in an age when new ballets are often created using music that its composer never intended to set to dance; The Sleeping Beauty is a reminder of a time when composers and choreographers worked hand in hand to produce pristine works that still charm audiences all over the world.