Riccardo Drigo – Part Three

by Irina Sorokina
translation: Stephanie Lewis

The story of the life and music of Italian composer Riccardo Drigo continues. Catch up with Part One and Two.

Notwithstanding these new trends, many issues had to be faced, above all the great Petipa who, although realizing his most famous dance works collaborating with the likes of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, did not have the necessary musical sensibility. In this sense he was the adversary of Lev Ivanov whose principle choreographies, such as the second scene of Swan Lake, were conceived and born of the music itself. Boris Asaf’ev, who had the opportunity of observing and learning from Drigo, noted, “Drigo was forced to fight for the music. Working for Petipa was extremely difficult.  He did not have an in-depth understanding of music. Furthermore, there was tremendous resistance and an absolute lack of preparation on the part of the ballet corps who, despite their brilliant artistry, seemed unable to seriously treat the concept of ballet existing through, and of, the music” (7).

Drigo’s first dance composition, choreographed by Petipa, was his Pas de six for the famous Italian dancer Virginia Zucchi. It was subsequently inserted into, and from there immortalized in, one of Romanticism’s works of art, Esmeralda by Pugni (choreographed by Jules Perrot). Drigo’s Pas de six, became a standard in the repertory of the great prima ballerinas becoming also a favourite at gala evenings.

In 1887 Lev Ivanov commissioned Drigo to write the music for his ballet The Enchanted Forest, debuting on the 25th March that same year. The work was created for the graduation ceremony of the Imperial School of Ballet.  The week prior to its debut Ivanov requested that the ballet end with a czarda rather than the traditional coda or gallop. Drigo completed the task in one day, producing a czarda that was to win over both the artists and their public. The critics were likewise impressed.  “This ballet’s music, from a symphonic perspective, is outstanding, revealing an accomplished composer and an excellent conductor. There are lovely melodies, the rhythms aren’t exaggerated and it is simply a pleasure, from start to finish” (Saint Petersburg Newspaper (8)). The Enchanted Forest was later transferred to the Mariinskij Theatre debuting 15th May 1887. Ilka, the lead role, was interpreted by the virtuosic Italian ballerina Emma Bessone. 

1888 witnessed an ‘invasion’ of the Mariinskij Theatre by exceptional Italian dancers and Petipa created La Vestale for his current ‘Made in Italy’ favourite, Elena Cornalba who took on the principal role of Amata debuting on 17th February that year. The music, considered the first real attempt at creating the ‘symphonic ballet’, was commissioned out to the music critic Mikhail Ivanov who produced a comparatively difficult score in relation to ‘normal’ ballet works. Cornalba was unsatisfied, wanting something decidedly more danceable for her solo numbers. She turned to Drigo who wrote two additional variations L’Echo e Le Valse Mignonne as well as L’Amour, a variation for the role of Cupid, and a solo piece for the part of Claudia, played by the Russian dancer Maria Gorsenkova.

With the 1886/87 season over, Drigo returned to Italy where he started work on his new ballet The Talisman. Based on the féerie La Fille de l’air and adapted by the librettist Konstantin Tarnovskij and Marius Petipa (also choreographer), the resulting enormous score contains all possible dance forms imaginable. The work debuted on 25th January 1889 to great acclaim with Cornable as lead and with Drigo much praised. Aleksandr Benois, an important painter of the time wrote in his memoirs that, “It was Drigo’s simple yet fascinating music that attracted me…I was so taken away that I couldn’t stop clapping and cried out, “You see, it is a work of art!”. (9)

Today, this ballet lies in archives, its wonderful music hidden. Occasionally though, there are opportunities for glimpsing this unknown gem. In 1987, the choreographer Petr Gusev reconstructed The Talisman’s Pas de deux for Ljudmila Semenjaka, the star of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Both her impeccable interpretation and Drigo’s fascinating music (with contributions from Pugni for the male variation) led to considerable popularity of the production. The waltz-entrée and the female variation are incomparable for their grace, finesse and poetical character. Thirty-three years on for this reconstruction, it is the female solo which remains one of the best-loved, and used, in dance competitions throughout Europe.

In Italy, at Padua’s Teatro Verdi, The Talisman was dusted down to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Drigo’s birth. Canada’s acclaimed Paul Chalmer choreographed the work drawing from various formula found in the ballets of Petipa and Ivanov.  Both Carla Fracci and Alessandro Molin participated in this ‘revival’ which was performed twice (in March 1997) before moving on to Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico for three further replicas. “From that first staging of The Talisman, the choreographers Petipa and Ivanov started regularly commissioning me pieces and variations for inserting into old ballets. (…)  These works accumulated over time and finally amounted to around 80 separate pieces”. (Drigo, 10)

  1. B. Asaf’ev. Op. cit., p. 97
  2. Quoted in D. Krivosapka.  “Mr Riccardo, otherwise known as, “Kissed by Fate”.  Musical Life, Moscow, 2018, n.5
  3. Quoted in “Riccardo Drigo”. https://it.qwe.wiki
  4. “From the memoirs of Riccardo Drigo”, quote, p.15.