Riccardo Drigo – Part Four

by Irina Sorokina
translation: Stephanie Lewis

Irina Sorokina’s article on the life and work of Riccardo Drigo continues with the recount of the most important years of the composer’s career at the Mariinskij Theatre. Visit our blog for the previous parts.

A new stage in Drigo’s career, above all as conductor, became evident in 1889. In debuting Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty at the end of that year, and going on to then conduct the work a further 191 times at the Mariinskij Theatre, Drigo became Tchaikovsky’s friend, his colleague, his ‘right-hand man’, his perfect interpreter.

Drigo’s career at the Mariinskij lasted forty-one years and clearly made its mark as a small article published by an unknown critic “D.L” in the newsletter “Biryuc” (11) in 1919 testifies. “Ricard Evgen’evic’s musical presence is felt by all. If sometimes the orchestra is found to be lacking, it will have been due to Drigo’s forced absence caused by the war. If you talk to any ballerina, they all readily admit to his sensibility and expertise as conductor. It is only when they see him in the podium that they truly feel secure on stage”.

“What did I best love about Drigo? His interpretation of The Nutcracker. He truly recognised the importance of its symphonic writing from the first act onwards” (Boris Asaf’ev (12)). Drigo conducted The Nutcracker at its opening night in 1892 and in repeat performances over the following 30 years he was never substituted. His name will forever be tied to the historic opening nights of Swan Lake and to three of Glazunov’s ballets  – Rajmonda (1898), Les Ruses d’Amour (1900) and Les Saisons (1900).  

Asaf’ev considered Drigo the perfect interpreter of Tchaikovsky’s scores writing, “Drigo was the first to truly comprehend Tchaikovsky’s musical approach. Without fully understanding our symphonic forms, he essentially tried to realize them in the staging and performances of Tchaikovsky’s ballets.” (13) Conductors coming to the podium after Drigo under the Soviet system owed much to him in terms of the interpretative traditions of Tchaikovsky’s scores.

Before starting revisions for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, written in 1877 but promptly forgotten due to poor staging and choreography, Drigo composed two scores, The Magic Flute (1893) and Le Reveil de Flore (1893). Both works became major hits.

Like The Enchanted Forest, The Magic Flute was also written for the Imperial Ballet School and choreographed by Lev Ivanov. Luc, the lead role, was played by the eleven year-old Mikhail Fokine, later to become a great choreographer and reformer of dance. January 23rd 1893 saw the work’s first performance. Its considerable success subsequently allowed The Magic Flute to be transferred four months later to the Mariinskij Theatre. The critics in this context were likewise full of praise. “Drigo astounds the listener with his capacity to create an almost limitless variety of rhythms closely matched to dance together with lovely melodies and a rich, almost symphonic orchestration”. (14)

Le Reveil de Flore, an anacreontic ballet in one act, was defined by Drigo as a “trifle”, a “plaything”. Certainly, it couldn’t be compared to Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces and yet it had its own charm, thanks also to Petipa and Ivanov’s choreography. This playful ballet was created for the occasion of the wedding between the Great Duchess Ksnija Aleksandrovna and the Grand Duke Aleksandr Mikhajlovic, 28th July 1894 at the imperial palace of Peterhof, the most sumptuous summer residence of the Romanov dynasty. The whole court was present and for this musical effort, the emperor Aleksandr Third awarded Drigo the “Order of Saint Anna”.  Matil’da Feliksovna Ksesinskaja, the Mariinskij Theatre’s absolute prima donna, played the lead role. As with The Magic Flute, Le Reveil de Flore was then transferred to the Mariinskij Theatre and its principal roles were interpreted by the greatest stars of the time. There was, naturally, Ksesinskaja but also Tamara Karsavina, Agrippina Vaganova and Anna Pavlova, not to mention two future stars of choreography, the already-indicated Mikhail Fokine and Bronislava Nizinskaja. Pavlova particularly liked Le Reveil de Flore and in her numerous tours overseas she often presented it. Contemporaries meanwhile referred to it as the “ little, precious brooch”, the “cherry on top of the wedding cake”.

Le Reveil de Flore remained in the repertoire until 1919 when, together with other choreographic masterpieces of the Tsarist era, it was removed being considered by then inappropriate for those new times. For a long period, it was thought to have been lost to oblivion but in 2007 it returned to its very own Mariinskij Theatre. The orchestrated score, buried in Mariinskij’s Central Music Library, was brought to light as was the choreographic notation of Nikolaj Sergeev, which he’d based on the Stepanov system.  These were reconstructed by Sergej Vikharev. The scenes and costumes were likewise reconstructed using the photos and sketches of Mikhail Bocarov and Evgenij Ponomarev which had been conserved at the State Museum of Music Theatre and the Arts. Other sources for the costumes were in the Ponomarev’s sketches stored at the Theatre Library of Saint Petersburg.

  1. Birjuc”, Petrograd, 1919, N 17-18, p.301
  2. B. Asaf’ev.  Op. cit., p 97
  3. Cited in “Riccardo Drigo”. https://it.qwe.wiki
  4. B. Asaf’ev.  “The Dance Music of Tchaikovsky”.  Report 3a ‘scientific’ session dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky, 21 November 1944.  Incorrect stenogram held at the Tchaikovsky Museum at Klin.  Quoted in “From the memoirs of Riccardo Drigo”, p.16.