Stravinky's 0riginal costume design for Petrushka
Original 1911 set design for Petrushka
The top right is Nijinsky in the role of Petrushka.
When I was a child my grandmother gave us a record with stories from famous ballets, including musical excerpts from Petrushka. We were entranced by it; my sister and I tried dancing to Petrushka when we were very small; from what I have read since, we were not alone in being swept up into the drama. Composed by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Petrushka debuted in 1911 at the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris. The mysterious, magical tale of love and revenge unfolds at a Russian Shrovetide fair, centering around a puppet called "Petrushka," who in Pinocchio-style comes to life. To summarize:
Petrushka ("Petey") is the story of three puppets - the forlorn and homely Petrushka, a beautiful ballerina, and a mysterious and gaudily dressed Moor - brought to life by their showman master at a Russian Shrovetide fair.In Russian culture, the puppet character of "Petrushka" was rather like "Punch," a rude, comic Everyman, the butt of every joke. Stravinsky endows him with human feelings; as Petrushka attempts to rise from his baseness, his strivings lead to his destruction, only to gain immortality in the end.
Petrushka tries to express his love for the ballerina, but she has eyes only for the Moor. The frustrated Petrushka is subdued by the scimitar-wielding Moor, but the puppet's ghost has the last laugh by thumbing his nose at everyone.
All this takes place within the context of the fair, full of dances by nannies, coachmen, masqueraders, crowds and even a dancing bear.
Stravinsky's music captures the carnival atmosphere of Maslenitsa, the Russian version of Mardi Gras, with all its color and passion. As one commentator describes:
Subject and music appear to reflect the Russian nature. Gogol and Mussorgsky are there. Everything is reflected in the score with a sure and reckless mastery —the movement and tumult of the crowd; the gait and aspect of each leading figure; and the grotesque agonies of the helpless one. A shriek of...trumpets in different keys is the motto of Petrouchka's protest. The composition is permeated with Russian folk-melodies and also street songs marvelously treated.In his day, Stravinsky was considered avant-garde since his music was a bit different from what had gone before. His work was part of the explosion of creativity that brightened the last days of imperial Russia, called the "Silver Age." On one level, Petrushka is an echo of a time that is gone; on another, it conveys the spirit of the Russian people which Communism was not able to destroy. I enjoy listening to Petrushka more than ever, especially during Shrovetide.