There was a nice violin solo, but it was spoiled by [concertmaster] M. Gerber…How is that an instrument, and a soloist? Dragging an unoiled carriage across the stage would have afforded greater pleasure.
The conductor overindulged Tchaikovsky’s penchant for bombast, the principle violinist hacked at his solos, and permitted the orchestra to fall apart.
Newly emboldened by Russian Tsar Alexander II’s press reforms, the Moscow press had a field day with the 1877 premiere of the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The criticism was not altogether unjustified, for the original four-act ballet contained no fewer than 54 separate scenes, adding up to more than 2 hours and 40 minutes’ worth of music.
One of the 54 that later hit the cutting-room floor was a virtuosic piece for solo violin that foreshadows the composer’s epic Violin Concerto that was to come a year later.
It was called simply Russian Dance, and it was apparently undermined by the two performers it was supposed to showcase The Bolshoi orchestra’s unfortunate concertmaster (see above), and the renowned dance company’s prima ballerina Pelageya Karpakova. It was not uncommon in those days for ballerinas to demand special scenes be created for them, similar to divas inserting wholly unrelated arias into standard operas. Tchaikovsky obliged with a spectacular dance for the scene designed to show off of the seductive charms of the Black Swan.
Only it seems the ballerina bombed in the role. According to ballet historian Simon Morrison, “Karpakova was no higher than third on the Bolshoi depth chart, but through various intrigues had landed the first-night title role of the White/Black Swan, and with it a portion of the box-office proceeds.” She lasted for just 12 performances. According to the book Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today, “The Russian Dance stayed in the ballet no longer than Karpakova did.”
Overall, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was a Bolshoi bust, with just 39 overall performances in Tchaikovsky’s lilfetime. But after his death in 1893, a trio of Tchaikovsky associates turned the ballet into a Saint Petersburg smash, and in the process turned the ballet into the world-wide megahit status that it enjoys to this day. Bolshoi Confidential: ” [Maurice] Petipa, [Lev] Ivanov and [Riccardo] Drigo were superlative show doctors. By cutting, moving, revising and adding, they turned this unwieldy idea of a ballet into a theatrical classic.”
In the recast, rejiggered, and revived production, about one-quarter of Tchaikovsky’s music was left out, including the Russian Dance. But in recent years, as choreographers have looked to “spice up” productions of this ballet classic, the role of the sexy alter-ego Black Swan has gained more prominence , and with it, this fast-paced scene of seduction!
And with it, more exposure in the concert hall, including this dazzling display of dexterity by Heifetz Holiday Tour violinist Max Yiming Mao, joined by pianist Stefan Petrov at our Heifetz Holiday Homecoming concert at the beautiful Blackfriars Playhouse of the American Shakespeare Center here in Staunton.
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