#Throwback Thursday: Ondine

This week's #ThrowbackThursday is Ondine, a ballet which has two incarnations: the first by Jules Perrot, and the second by Sir Frederick Ashton.

Alexandra Ansanelli as Ondine, Royal Ballet (Ashton)

Both ballets base their libretto on the novel Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. The story is similar to the tale of The Little Mermaid. The plot follows Palemon, a mortal man, who marries the naiad Ondine. However, in a twist on several other 19th century ballets (for example, La Sylphide) it is Palemon who dies at the end, rather than the supernatural female spirit. Added to the mix is Palemon's sweetheart, variously known as Giannina, Bertalda, and Berta, who becomes a rival to Ondine. Palomino eventually chooses Ondine, but she is lost overboard while at sea. Believing her dead, Palemon marries Berta. Ondine is heartbroken when she discovers this, and kisses Palemon. The kiss of a naiad is deadly to a mortal, and Palemon dies.

Above: Lithograph by Adolf Charlemagne, depicting the July 1851 outdoor performance of 'Ondine' at Peterhof Palace for the name-day celebrations of Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna; Below: Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, showing Carlotta Grisi as Ondine in the Pas de l'ombre from the Perrot/Pugni revival 'La Naiade et le pecheur', c. 1851

Perrot's three-act ballet was called Ondine, ou La naiade (Ondine, or The Naiad). Perrot's libretto in fact bears little resemblance to Fouque's novel, and is in fact closer to Rene-Charles Guilbert de Pixerecourt's play Ondine, ou la Nymphe des Eaux, which was first presented in Paris in 1830 while Perrot was also performing there. For music, Perrot used a score by Cesare Pugni, while he himself was choreographer. Punning dedicated his score to the Duchess of Cambridge, the Princess Augusta, a dedicated patron of the arts. The ballet premiered on June 22 1843 at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. The celebrated ballerina Fanny Cerrito played Ondine, while Perrot himself played her lover (called Matteo in this version). The ballet was a great success; critics praised Cerrito in the title role, calling her a master of Perrot's choreography. Pugni's score also received a far bit of attention and was hailed as a masterpiece, while William Grieve's scenery was also praised.

Above: Lithograph by unknown artist, showing Fanny Cerrito dancing the pas de l'ombre from Act I of the Perrot/Pugni 'Ondine, ou la Naiade', 1843 (sometimes incorrectly labelled as showing Carlotta Grisi in 1851); Below: a similar image again showing Fanny Cerrito in the Pas de l'ombre, c. 1843, in colour by an unknown artist

When Perrot was engaged as ballet master at the Russian Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg, Pugni accompanied him. Together they staged an elaborate production of Ondine, under the title La Naiade et le pecheur (The Naiad and the Fisherman), at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. It premiered on February 11 1851. Pugni greatly revised his original score, and the production was extremely successful. Perrot then staged the production on July 23 1851 at the Peterhof Palace at the celebrations for the name-day of Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, the daughter of Emperor Nicholas I. For this performance a stage was built over the lake of the Ozerky Pavilion. The performance was revived several times by Marius Petipa, who also made significant choreographic revisions, firstly for Ekaterina Vazem in 1867, then for Eugenia Sokolova in 1874, and for Anna Johansson in 1892. Another revival was staged by Pugni's grandson Alexander Shiryaev especially for Anna Pavlova in 1903, and the Leningrad ballet continued to perform the full-length work until 1931. Recently, Pierre Lacotte has staged a revival of this production for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet, using Pugni's reassembled original score. The ballet, now called Ondine once more, premiered on March 16 2006.

Above and below: Margot Fonteyn in costume for Ashton's 'Ondine', 1958

The story of Ondine has also been made into a ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton. Ashton worked with composer Hans Werner Henze, who produced a new score for the production. The three act ballet premiered at the Royal Opera House on October 27 1958. Ondine is the only ballet that Ashton choreographed to have an original score. The role on Ondine was choreographed especially for prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who experienced success with the role and was almost always cast in it; exceptions are the brief performances of Nadia Nerina and Svetlana Beriosova. In 1966, the work was removed from the repertoire until the 1988 revival featuring Maria Almeida and Anthony Dowell, which has continued to be a success.

Above: Bronze statuette depicting Margot Fonteyn as Ondine, by Nathan David, 1974; Below: Tamara Rojo and Edward Watson in Ashton's Ondine, revival by Anthony Dowell, Royal Ballet

At its premiere the ballet gained mixed reviews; the critics were unanimous in agreeing that Fonteyn had triumphed in the lead role, but were rather half-hearted about other parts of the ballet. Most critics blamed the ballet's faults on the score, with one going so far as to call the whole thing 'foolish', and another blaming the sense of lacklustre solely on Henze's music, without which, he wrote, the ballet would acquire a firm place in the repertoire. Such arguments have gone quiet since the 1988 revival, although most critics still seem to be in two minds about the work. Ashton himself is rumoured to have been disappointed with the score that was given to him, but went ahead with the ballet anyway. He did not entirely forget the Perrot/Pugni production which had been such a success; he included his own version of the famous Pas de l'ombre (Shadow Dance) into the first act of his new ballet.

Here's Evgenia Obraztsova dancing the female variations from Pierre Lacotte's 2006 revival of Ondine:

Unfortunately I cannot find any full length version of Ondine.

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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