Riccardo Drigo – Part Six

by Irina Sorokina
translation: Stephanie Lewis

The final part of the journey through the extraordinary life and work of Italian composer Riccardo Drigo

In 1902, Drigo and some of the Mariinskij Theatre’s dancers were invited by the Opèra de Monte-Carlo to create a ballet based on a libretto by Prince Albert I. La Cote d’Azur, a comic ballet in two acts, debuted on 30th March that same year with choreography by Aleksandr Sirjaev and starring Olga Preobrazenskaja as lead ballerina.

His final ballet work followed two years later, La Romane d’un Bouton de rose et d’un Papillon.  This work had been, “…proposed for the Hermitage Imperial Theatre (but) was then performed only in 1919 under extremely difficult conditions” (18).

Other later compositions include his nocturne Sogni di primavera and its tailor-made ‘coda’, composed for the 1915 revival of Le Corsaire and its famous Pas de deux.

The remaining years in Russia were tinged with bitterness. After his exit as director from the Imperial Theatres, Petipa fell into disgrace, alone and misunderstood. This also affected Drigo in that he was Petipa’s preferred musical collaborator.

“In the summer of 1914 the war took away any possibility of me returning to Russia and I, forced to remain in Italy, was worried because the understudy conductor at Saint Petersburg wasn’t there…my entire soul longed to be back in Saint Petersburg and in every letter I asked help in returning, even bypassing Europe, but I received only the indifferent advice to stay put in Italy. I returned to Russia only in 1916 and for four particularly taxing years, until 1920, I lived solely at Saint Petersburg, leaving Russia with great regret, forced to do so by extreme external conditions” (19).

Drigo, of course, referred to the civil war, freezing winters, rationed food and other daily difficulties together with his own old age and health problems. He was evicted from Saint Petersburg’s Grand Hotel after being resident for thirty years, got around the snowy city dragging a sledge behind him and, complete with ration card, made to wait in line for bread.  Fortunately, Drigo was not alone, sharing these hardships with the great Russian composer Glazunov.

When finally he was allowed to return to Italy, the new Soviet artistic direction, which had substituted the obsolete Imperial Theatres, organized celebrations in honour of Drigo’s forty-one years of service to Russia. The Mariinskij dedicated a farewell evening to him (25th April 1920) which included Fedor Lopukhov presenting his version of Petipa’s last ballet Le conte du bouton de rose. There was also the famous bass singer Fedor Saljapin who read out a moving, Italian-Russian farewell address. After a lifetime in Russia, Drigo was permitted to leave with only 60kg of luggage.  The voyage back to Italy took two months at sea, by way of Odessa and Constantinople. To sleep at night, Drigo used his scores as a pillow.

Conditions in Italy were likewise bad. Furthermore, it didn’t take Drigo long to realise that Italian ballet was in every way inferior to what he’d left behind in Russia. He continued conducting activities in Venice and at the Manzoni Theatre in Milan and in 1929 performed his opera Il garofano bianco, a work based on a story by Alphonse Daudet, libretto by A. Golisciani. He died October first 1930, virtually forgotten.

Here, then, we have a life of thoughts, talent and creativity, nurtured by distant Russia, second home of Riccardo, or rather, Ricard Evgen’evic Drigo who actively participated in its great moments of ballet history. Yet although he was widely, and rightly, recognised for his talents as conductor, Drigo’s contribution as a composer remains in the shadows. Why? As the previously cited anonymous critic D. L wrote, “Drigo’s works were less noted, nor were they ever highlighted. Although the public was appreciative of the beautiful, melodious music, although the artists were enthusiastic in dancing to it, the specialist ballet critics never appreciated Drigo’s art nor did serious music critics, generally intolerant of ballet!” (20).

Drigo lived at a time when Russian ballet was at its zenith. He witnessed the demise of Romanticism, the affirmation of Petipa’s accademism, the death of the composer as kapellmeister, court and theatre musician. He saw dance music gain new territory with the likes of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov and was there to comprehend and fight for this new vision. Though he was destined to be in the shadows of the greats of that period, Arlequinade continues to delight with its brilliant humour whilst Swan Lake, without Drigo, would have remained forgotten, the interpretative traditions of Tchaikovsky’s ballets potentially never consolidating in time.  

Stravinsky named Drigo, “the Italian Tchaikovsky”, Asaf’ev “Russian ballet’s most sincere friend”. Clearly, he was one of Russia’s undisputed protagonists of the period.

  1. From the memoirs of Riccardo Drigo”, p.16.
  2. “From the memoirs of Riccardo Drigo”, p.16.
  3. “Birjuc”, Petrograd, 1919, N 17-18, p.301