Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Vittorio Rieti (after themes of Vincenzo Bellini)
Scenario: Vittorio Rieti
Costumes: Andre LeVasseur
The curtain goes up on a masked ball in progress. Society’s glitterati, beautifully turned out, are gathered in a celebration of self-satisfaction. The elegant Polonaise delights the audience and we settle back in charmed contentment. We anticipate the pleasure of the party.
Thus George Balanchine introduced his 1946 ballet, La Sonnambula, a treasured, atypical work “with-plot” by a choreographer who usually favored the abstract above the literal. The plot is briefly this: The Poet appears at the party described, and is introduced, with notable reluctance, by the Baron to his mistress, the Coquette. The party whirls on, and the Baron presents a trio of diverting “entertainments” which his guests politely applaud. The guests leave the garden. The Coquette entraps the Poet in a seductive pas de deux, but the Baron reclaims her attention and she abandons the Poet. His brief reverie is interrupted by the ethereal Sleepwalker and he is spellbound. In a furious rush of passions, the story speeds to a tragic climax.
The story, as given, is surely the stiff of melodrama, fully weighted with macabre 19th century Romanticism. That they appeal endures, affirms once again Balanchine’s extraordinary sense of the theatrical and his unrivalled capacity for choreographic invention. The dancers describe with the set of their heads, the angle of their wrists, and world of timeless arrogance. The ballet’s language, its postures, are those of intrigue of spying, of watched and watchers. Creatures of bored affluence the Baron, the Coquette, the Guests traffic in the random malice of rumor. They are practitioners of lago’s art and the consequences are comparable. The Poet, the Sleepwalker, and the Entertainers are innocent and apart from the conspiracy which swirls around them, but the dancers devised for them are the ballet’s centerpiece and strength. The extraordinarily moving and beautiful duet of the Poet and the Sleepwalker, and the acrobatic humor of the Divertissements are the pieces around which the dramatic web is woven.
The music and the scenario for La Sonnambula, also known at various times as The Night Shadow, Night Shadows, La Sonnambule, are creations of Vittorio Rieti, a composer who was both friend and collaborator to Balanchine. The music is based on themes from Bellini’s operas, including La Sonnambula, I Puritani, Norma, and I Capuletti ed i Montecchi,but the ballet uses only the subject matter and not the story from La Sonnambula. It was first performed on February 27, 1946, by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in New York City, was presented by various companies in that form and was restaged in 1960 by John Taras for the New York City Ballet. Mr. Taras, who appeared as the Baron in that production, has set this work for the State Ballet of Missouri.