The World of La Fille mal gardee —

Picture this: It’s a beautiful summer afternoon. At some remove from the massive royal palace and the strict formality of Le Notre’s gardens at Versailles, stands an enclosure with a mill, farmhouse, dovecote, a housekeeper’s cottage and a tower overlooking a lake, all built in the style of an idealised Norman village constructed between 1783 and 1787. Taking pride of place is the Queen’s House. Chickens roam, dairy cows graze and farmers work the gardens, producing vegetables for the royal kitchens. Wandering within the ‘village’ Queen Marie-Antoinette and a group of her confidantes gather eggs while dressed in peasant costumes. Here the Queen and her favourites could play at being milkmaids or shepherdesses while servants did most of the hard work. As well, the Mill and the Queen’s House were used for dinner parties, but often the day would end with a retreat to the nearby Petit Trianon, a neoclassical hideaway of modest stately splendour. In this fairy-tale setting the Queen could temporarily escape from the formality and intrigues of the court.

The Queen’s Hamlet would seem to be entirely out of place for the royal court, yet this constructed confection reflected a renewed interest in the attraction of a life lived closer to the land, to the lure of a simpler existence and an appreciation of nature in a way that was just the opposite of the rigid ceremony and highly artificial demands of life in and around royal courts. Of course the ideal of a pastoral setting imitating the pleasures of rural life was far from the true lot of the peasantry. As a rule, peasants in eighteenthcentury Europe lived brief lives, often threatened with the spectre of starvation. In contrast, the life of peasants and shepherds as depicted in the contemporary operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or the paintings of Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, Jean-Siméon Chardin and Jean-Honoré Fragonard more closely resembled the world of Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet than any true peasant scene. However, such interests, no matter how superficial, have a serious legacy, which dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. 

The eighteenth century was the period of the Grand Tour. Those who could afford it headed south from England, Germany and France to Italy and, to a lesser extent Greece, Egypt and Turkey to discover the roots of western civilisation. Interest in things classical and the wonders of Greece and Rome received a boost when the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were discovered, untouched for the most part since the lethal eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. As a result, along with a rage for all things classical in architecture and furniture came an increased interest in literature from the classical period. High on the list were Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, written after Greek examples by Theocritus and Hesiod. The Eclogues are populated largely by herdsmen and other rural types, who provide a platform for addressing idealised politics and eroticism. The subject not only made the readings popular at the time they were written, but also provided a propaganda base for Octavian, the Emperor Augustus. The Georgics refer to man’s relation to the land and the struggle with nature amongst other topics. 

The eighteenth century reception of Virgil’s great works gave rise to an interest in the ‘locus amoenus’ or a pleasant place, describing the setting for bucolic narratives. Thus the legacy from these works was the idealisation of landscape that was interpreted in painting and on stage as a grove or naturally shaded site with fetching meadows, brooks and trees making up the visual vocabulary of the rural idyll. Further, interest in simplicity and a life closer to the earth was reinforced by the writings of Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who proposed that humankind was good by nature but corrupted by society. Rousseau defined the natural virtue of the common person, pointing out the moral corruption that was fostered by the urge for distinction and excellence in society. Rousseau traced man’s evolution from the natural state to the development of agriculture and metallurgy and the establishment of private property, citing this as the basis of inequality between those who own land and those who do not. These ideas provided the seeds of social upheaval that led to the French Revolution. 

There is little wonder why there was discontent. In France the divide between the aristocracy and the much larger peasant population, which was weighed down by the burden of heavy taxation, only increased in the second half of the eighteenth century. At a time when the very existence of a noble class was being questioned, the dream of a simpler life gained wide popular appeal amongst the aristocracy itself. Further, the themes of a Golden Age and nostalgia for a simpler and a more contemplative life sat in stark contrast to the tense, urban existence in Paris, London and other capital cities at the close of the eighteenth century. As a result, plays, operas and ballets often had bucolic settings or moved from country to palace, setting an ideal of simple peasant life in contrast to the complexities of life in the royal courts. Mozart’s operas Il Re Pastore (The Shepherd King) and La Finta Giardiniera (The Pretended Gardener) are of this genre. Not only were operas and ballets filled with shepherds and shepherdesses, farmers and peasants, but paintings, too, looked at the simpler life, providing the (usually) aristocratic viewer with a visual experience of life that was not his or her own. Rural models were also used to provide moral messages. The ‘star’ artist of this type of subject matter was Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) who influenced a century of moral subjects in painting. 

Drawing on Dutch 17th century models, especially the work of Jan Steen, as well as the work of French painters Boucher and Chardin, Greuze created moralising narratives, dealing with life in the middle and lower classes. Subjects like The Broken Eggs or The Blindman Deceived and The Sleeping Schoolboy, all painted in the mid-eighteenth century, deal with social issues of the lower classes. Even more popular were Greuze’s later depictions of young adolescent girls stunned by a broken mirror or a broken pitcher or mourning a dead sparrow, all subjects alluding to the loss of virginity and filled with an erotic edge that would appeal to the mostly male clientele. It is just such a painting that inspired the ballet La Fille mal gardée. Legend has it that Jean Dauberval, the choreographer of La Fille, was inspired by an engraving he found in a Bordeaux print shop of a popular painting by Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, La réprimande/Une jeune fille querellée par sa mère (The reprimand/a young girl nagged by her mother). The painting depicts a young girl in tears, her clothes in disarray, being lectured by her mother. The young girl’s lover is seen in the background, scurrying up to a loft. Dauberval’s ballet, with its original title, Le ballet de la paille, ou Il n’est qu’un pas du mal au bien (The Ballet of the Straw, or There is only one step from bad to good), premiered at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux in July 1789 with Dauberval’s wife, Marie-Madeleine Crespé in the principal role of Lison (now known as Lise). The music from that first version of the ballet was a pastiche of popular French tunes. As there was no composer listed, it is possible that Dauberval, who was a violinist himself, might have made the arrangements to fit his storyline.

Dauberval took his work to London two years after the Bordeaux premiere and there gave it the title it has today, La Fille mal gardée. Dauberval’s wife again danced the role as Lise and Dauberval’s student Charles Didelot, played the part of Colas. Didelot went on to stage the first production of the ballet in St. Petersburg at the old Bolshoi Kameny Theatre with the title La Précaution inutile, ou Lise et Colin (Useless precaution, or Lise and Colin) in 1818, but it was not the first time the ballet had been seen in Russia. La Fille was first presented in Moscow in 1800 by Ballet Master Giuseppe Solomoni. There were many different productions and versions of La Fille throughout the nineteenth century, but one of the most important developments was Jean-Pierre Aumer’s version of the ballet staged in 1828 at the Paris Opera, mounted for ballerina Pauline Montessu. Composer Ferdinand Hérold created a new adaptation of the original score with additions taken from opera themes by Donizetti and Martini. In 1837, Austrian ballet star Fanny Elssler performed Aumer’s version of La Fille adding other bits of music including tunes from Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore. Perhaps this was a fitting addition since Donizetti’s opera deals with aspects of peasant life much like those of La Fille.

In 1864 choreographer Paul Taglioni staged a version of La Fille with music by Peter Ludwig Hertel whose score was used by Italian ballerina Viginia Zucchi when she toured St. Petersburg in 1885. This was the basis for the Russian version used from 1894 (revived by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa) until the Russian Revolution in 1917 and was a vehicle for such stars as Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Mathilde Kschessinska.

In the twentieth century, there were many revivals, but two versions stand out. Alexander Gorsky revived the Petipa/Ivanov version of La Fille at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in 1903. This was the basis of all subsequent productions in Russia. In the west, English choreographer, Frederick Ashton began working on a completely new version of La Fille mal gardée for the Royal Ballet in London in 1959. Originally planning to use the Hertel score from 1864, he later decided to commission Royal Opera House composer and conductor, John Lanchbery, to use Hérold’s music instead as the basis of a new score. Taking Hérold’s music and researching the original 1789 pastiche, Lanchbery developed his score, adding new music to provide a clog dance for the character of the Widow Simone and the peasant girls, which was a guaranteed show stopper. 

The Ashton/Lanchbery version of La Fille has been a regular feature of major ballet companies in Europe, North America and Australia. This score is the basis for French choreographer Marc Ribaud’s staging presented by West Australian Ballet. Setting his version of the ballet in south of France in the 1950s, Ribaud stated that his choice of the period was “to give the ballet a more modern look, but also because we thought it was the exact period when women started to decide for themselves and the authority of the parents became more and more ‘refused’ by the young ladies! We also thought it would allow us to present a version that would be very accessible to today’s public and it would also allow me to be myself and play a little more with neo-classical choreography.” In this updated version, scooters have replaced horses and carts and the clog dance is now a tap dance! But through all its changes and developments for over two centuries, La Fille mal gardée retains its charm and the allure of a rustic life of simple pleasures.

Alan R. Dodge