The Mariinsky Ballet Revives Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé

Mariinsky Ballet

It’s been several decades since Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé was last presented as a ballet, even as it has been performed in the concert hall quite regularly.  So it is nice to note that the Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia is including Salomé as part of its 13th Annual Ballet Festival.

The Mariinsky is also taking the production on tour.

This video clip, courtesy of the Mariinsky Ballet Channel on YouTube, highlights some of the new choreography that has been developed by Emil Faski, danced in rehearsal by Mariinsky company members Victoria Brilyova and Andrei Yermakov.

Schmitt Salome Koblenz

The program cover for the Coblenz Ballet’s staging of Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé in 1994/95.

To my knowledge, the Mariinsky production is the first staging of the ballet since the 1994-95 season, when Salomé was presented in Germany as part of an evening of three ballets (also including Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin), with choreography by Anthony Taylor.

That German production, mounted at the Theater des Stadt Koblenz, premiered on October 28, 1994 and ran for 16 performances, with the orchestral forces conducted by Marioara Trifan and Christian Letschert-Larsson.

Interestingly, from my research, I believe the last time The Tragedy of Salome was mounted as a ballet production in the city of its origin was back in 1954, mounted by the Paris Opéra. That was the seventh time Parisians had had the opportunity to see the ballet, with earlier productions mounted in 1944, 1928, 1919, 1913, 1912 and 1907.

Loie Fuller, American dancer

Loïe Fuller

The first production in 1907 was of Schmitt’s original version of the music, danced by Loïe Fuller who, like Isadora Duncan, was famous for her scarves and lighting effects. Schmitt had composed the nearly one-hour score in under three months, drawing quick inspiration from a dramatic scenario conjured up by poet and theater director Robert d’Humières.

The 1907 Salomé was mounted as a “mimed drama” at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris, a smallish performance space that was unable to accommodate an orchestra of more than 20 musicians. Writing of the lead dancer’s commanding performance, the French music and drama critic Edmond Stoullig reported:

“All the other persons in the drama dwelt immovable, looking at Mme. Fuller. What could they do otherwise? There was nothing to do except to admire her, mouths agape.”

Theatre Hebertot

The interior of the Théâtre des Arts (now known as the Théâtre Hebertot), where Schmitt’s ballet was first mounted in 1907.

Despite the production constraints he faced, Schmitt managed to create a score that is highly effective, even as he must have chafed at the inability to employ his masterful orchestration skills.

Indeed, Schmitt was forced to confine himself to using merely a quintet of strings, a flute, an oboe/English horn, a clarinet, a bassoon, a trumpet, two horns and two trombones, along with harp and limited percussion.

Loie Fuller Florent Schmitt Salome 1907 ParisMusicologist and Schmitt biographer Catherine Lorent has written the following about the original version of the Salomé score:

“In spite of the small number of players, [Florent Schmitt] was able to draw from his orchestra astonishing effects … His orchestral commentary, tense and concentrated, quivers with inner life – vibrant in its passion. With an astonishing firmness of style and an incontestable rhythmic force, the composer has translated both the subtleties and brutalities inherent in the poetic text.”

You can sample how effective Schmitt’s scoring sounds in this excerpt from a 1991 Marco Polo recording made of the 1907 original version, with Patrick Davin conducting members of the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic, courtesy of YouTube.

Tragedie de Salome 1907 Program Cover

The program cover for the original production of La Tragédie de Salomé, presented at the Théâtre des Arts.

The 1907 production of La Tragédie de Salomé turned out to be one of the principal artistic events of the Paris season, receiving more than 50 performances (conducted by the then-very young Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht).

Tamara Karsavina as Salome (Ballets Russes 1913)

Tamara Karsavina as Salomé in the Ballets Russes production (1913).

The critics were glowing in their praise of the choreography and the music. The comments of Henri Gauthier-Villars were representative, who spoke of a “sumptuous symphony that shimmers around” the principal dancer.

But understandably, Schmitt wanted to find a way to give his music fresh light – and added “oomph” – when he prepared another version of the score three years later. Schmitt’s new version expanded the orchestra to full symphonic forces even as it reduced the number of tableaux from six dances to three.

The composition that resulted, now closer to 30 minutes in length, has been the one used to revive the ballet in subsequent years.

Florent Schmitt Tragedie de Salome set design

Set design for the 1912 production of Salomé, featuring dancer Natalia Trouhanova in the title role.

Natasha Trouhanova

Natalia (Natasha) Trouhanova (1885-1956)

La Tragédie de Salomé was included in a memorable evening of ballet on April 22, 1912, sharing billing alongside La Péri by Paul Dukas, Istar by Vincent d’Indy and Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs (better known to music-lovers as Valses Nobles et Sentimentales) by Maurice Ravel, which the composer had orchestrated from the original piano score expressly for Trouhanova’s program. 

This production of Salomé featured Natasha (Natalia) Trouhanova in the starring role.  Maxime Dethomas was the set designer, while the composer himself directed the Lamoureux Orchestra.  (Each of the other three ballets was conducted by their respective composers as well.)  The gala program was repeated on April 23, 25 and 27.

Trouhanova program 1912 Schmitt d'Indy Dukas Ravel

The quartet of ballets presented at the famous 1912 Paris program featuring prima ballerina Natalia Trouhanova. Each of the four composers — Paul Dukas, Vincent d’Indy, Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt — conducted their own scores.

Hard on the heels of the 1912 presentation of La Tragédie de Salomé was a Ballet Russes production mounted by Serge Diaghilev the following year, featuring choreography by Boris Georgevich Romanof and the prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina cast in the starring role, with Pierre Monteux directing the orchestral forces.

Schmitt Salome Leon Bakst 1913

Set décor by Léon Bakst for the 1913 Ballet Russes production of Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé.

Mir Iskusstva Boris Kustodiev

Members of the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) circle, deep in discussion. (Painting by Boris Kustodiev, 1920)

That production was the topic of a feature spread in Comœdia Illustré, the leading theatre magazine in Paris at the time, which also presented photos of a bejeweled Karsavina along with colorfully costumed Nubian guards.  The curtain and costume designs were created by Serge Sudeikine — the first time Diaghilev had turned to a Russian artist outside the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) circle (Bakst, Benois, Golovin, Roerich) — and the choreography was prepared by Boris Romanov, his only work for Diaghilev.  Leon Bakst was responsible for the sumptuous set design.

Florent Schmitt La Tragedie de Salome Ballets Russes 1913

The 1913 Ballets Russes production.

La Tragedie de Salome curtain design (1913 Ballets Russes)

Curtain design by Serge Sudeikine for the 1913 Ballets Russes production of Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé.

In 1919, the Paris Opéra staged a new production of Salomé featuring the famed dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein, reviving the ballet again in 1928 with Olga Spessivtseva.

Schmitt Tragedie de Salome Paris Opera 1954

The 1954 Paris Opéra production, starring Lycette Darsonval in the title role of Salomé. (Photo: Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

Considering the impressive roster of ballerina stars who took up the Salome role – along with the dramatic potential the score to Salomé offers – its disappearance from the Parisian ballet repertoire after 1954 seems somewhat odd.

Lisa Parnova American dancer

The Russian-born dancer Lisa Parnova mounted the first American staged production of La Tragédie de Salomé on January 29-31, 1932. Several years later, Parnova would make less welcome headlines as Mrs. Hollis B. Shaw, in a scandalous court case involving charges and countercharges of marital infidelity and alimony claims (which she would lose on every count). Parnova is also credited with introducing the composer George Antheil to George Balanchine at the School of American Ballet in 1934, quickly leading to the commissioning of Antheil’s music for a new ballet Les Songes (aka Dreams).

What about America? In my research, I’ve discovered that the first staged production of La Tragédie de Salomé in the United States didn’t happen until January 1932, when it was introduced to New York City audiences in a production mounted at the Grand Street Playouse. The producer of the show was Lisa Parnova, who also danced the title role alongside Gertrude Prokosch (Herodias), J. Blake Scott (Herod), Josef Castle (John the Baptist) and a corps de ballet of some 25 dancers. According to a January 30, 1932 news report in the New York Times, Florent Schmitt’s piano reduction score was performed by Grace Castagnetta, a noted arranger and pianist.

L Tragedie de Salome by Florent Schmitt (1919 production starring Ida Rubinstein)

A poster from the 1919 production of La Tragédie de Salomé, featuring Ida Rubinstein in the title role.

So it is doubly welcome to see this new Mariinsky production unfold.  And with the Salomé being taken on tour this year, perhaps it will lead to more widespread interest and revival of a work that deserves to be seen on the stage as much as it’s heard in the concert hall.


Update:  The Mariinsky Ballet’s production of La Tragédie de Salomé premiered in Russia in 2013, followed by stagings outside the country.

It was taken to Italy in 2013 (to Trieste, where it was performed at the Teatro Verdi), where it received glowing reviews.  The Italian arts critic Alberto Godas noted the “original and powerful choreography of Emil Faski,” and also reported on the production and staging “creating a magical atmosphere.”

In addition, a video has been uploaded recently on the Mariinsky’s YouTube channel featuring choreographer Emil Faski talking about his realization of the ballet, accompanied by a presentation of stage production excerpts.

5 thoughts on “The Mariinsky Ballet Revives Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé

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  4. After the 1954 Paris performance, Schmitt’s ballet was performed in Florence, Italy at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino on 19, 21, 22, 23 June 1973, with Carla Fracci in the role of Salome with the Corpo di Ballo del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, and the choreography of Loris Gai. Edoardo Muller conducted the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. See Teatro Comunale di Firenze, Catalogo delle manifestazioni, 1928-1997 (Firenze, 1998, p. 324).

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