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The role of ballet in opera

17 March 2020
Couple embracing dark atmosphere.

In this Season’s Les vêpres siciliennes, Verdi’s grand opera, director David Pountney has kept the ballet in Act II in for authenticity, to honour Verdi’s intended pace for the opera. By including the ballet we are therefore following the original work, although in our production the dance takes the form of a modern interpretation of the story of Montfort’s attack on Henri’s mother. The piece was danced by our fellow Wales Millennium Centre residents, National Dance Company Wales.

Many productions, especially those that use the later Italian revision of the opera, cut the dance but this loses an integral part of the grand opèra genre. Ballets were ‘de rigour’ in the popular French grand opèras of the 1800s, appearing within the first or second act of the five act productions, and usually with some link to the story of the opera. Although they were also often seen as only a divertissement, a way of giving the audience a chance to just enjoy the spectacle rather than worry about the plot – providing time to reflect on the story.

The inclusion of ballet in opera began around 1645, when Italian operas were taken to the court of King Louis XIV and were tailored to fit French tastes – which included ballet. Ballets had been enjoyed in the French courts (ballet de cour) since at least 1581, when they were political in tone and full of mythology –fables adapted to political propaganda. Elaborate productions were put on that included dance, spoken word, music and pantomime. Later in the 17th century these developed into two separate forms, ballet and opera, and began to be performed on stage in public theatres (rather than at court), with professional performers and not just members of court. 

Skeleton masked figures gather around woman embracing her.

Not that this precluded the two forms from sharing the same stage after this point, as stated above, grand opera necessitated ballet’s inclusion, although in more recent times the tradition had waned. In seeming tribute to the tradition however, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ever-popular 1986 musical The Phantom of the Opera, based on the book of the same name, was inspired by events at the Palais Garnier in the 19th century, aka Paris Opèra and the home of grand opèra. Christine, the lead female role, is just a chorus girl when the musical starts, taking part in the ballet in the opera (Hannibal). In the original story she is due to sing Marguerite in Faust (nb which forms part of our Spring 2021 Season) but is kidnapped in the middle of the performance by the ‘phantom’. In the musical this becomes an opera called Il Muto, which again features a ballet. Appropriately this all occurs in the first half of Phantom, recognising ballet’s customary timeframe.

In a different manner but again honouring tradition, in 2016 the Paris Opera coupled its singers and dancers together for a double bill performance of Iolanta/The Nutcracker, both by Tchaikovsky. The two titles had originally been commissioned by the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg and were, respectively the composer’s last opera and last ballet (premiered together in 1892) with the two stories linked by music. The project was born of the desire to (re)combine the two art forms which, nowadays, hardly ever interact despite their mutual origins, and the two pieces played immediately one after the other with no interval – one story developing from the other.

Surely both of these examples can be interpreted as veneration of grand opera and ballet’s role in it? A genre worth celebrating and no longer neglecting.