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LIKE FATHER, like son, they say. Fortunate indeed for the Russian-born theater arts pair of Alexandre and Nicolas Benois. Their careers extended from 1895 to 1978, encompassing costume and set design for ballet, opera and theater. Here, I celebrate three of my favorites, Alexandre Benois’ art for Пиковая дама, The Queen of Spades, 1890, and Петрушка, Petrushka, 1956; and his son Nicolas’s art for Amour et Hiérarchie, Love in the Ranks, 1925.
Alexandre was born into a family of Russian intelligentsia (his brother Leon, the grandfather of Peter Ustinov). Alexandre graduated from the Faculty of Law, Saint Petersburg Imperial University in 1894. Before long, though, his artistic leanings won out. In 1898, he was one of the founders of Мир искусства, World of Art, an art magazine and movement promoting Art Nouveau in Russia. Other founders included ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and artist Léon Bakst.
In 1901, Benois was appointed scenic director of Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Five years later, he moved to Paris and devoted most of his time to theater set and costume design.
The Queen of Spades, also known as La Dame de Pique, is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera involving the card game faro. Herman, a Russian officer, seeks the game’s secret known only to the old Countess, who’s also grandmother of his girlfriend Liza. He confronts the Countess, threatens her with a pistol and she dies of fright.
Later, the ghost of the Countess appears to Herman and reluctantly shares the secret—a Three, Seven and Ace—apparently enabling him to marry Liza.
Ha! It’s a trick!
Herman gets so obsessed with gambling that Liza commits suicide. And when he relies on the secret “Three, Seven and Ace” ploy, his third card isn’t an Ace, it’s the Queen of Spades. The Countess’s Ghost laughs; Herman joins Liza in death.
Petrushka is an Igor Stravinsky ballet burlesque of the loves and jealousies of three puppets, Petrushka (Punch in English puppetry), the Ballerina and the Moor. A Charlatan brings the three to life, with an ensuing chaotic mix of the puppet world and reality.
The puppet tale, based in Russian folklore, is a classic romantic triangle with a twist. A bumbling Petrushka loves the Ballerina, but she loves the Moor. Petrushka challenges the Moor, dies in the process, and his ghost rises above the puppet theater and shakes its fist at the Charlatan for concocting all this.
Nicolas Benois, Alexandre’s son, was also born in Saint Petersburg. He studied art and design under his father before attending Saint Petersburg’s Academy of Fine Arts. Nicolas worked briefly with the Mariinsky, then moved to Paris in 1923 where he collaborated with Diaghilev. Nicolas later followed his father to Italy where he did many productions for Teatro alla Scala.
Amour et Hiérarchie, a satiric revue by Alexis Archangelsky, was produced by Nicolas Benois in Paris in 1924. The title’s rendering in English, Love in the Ranks, gives away the plot: This buffoonery of old Saint Petersburg involves a charming young woman, a drummer boy, a sergeant major, a lieutenant, a colonel and a general. She’s sitting on a bench outside the barracks, and the first five vie for her affections. Finally, the general arrives. And guess who strolls off with the lady on his arm?
It’s clear from Benois’s art that the General is the chief buffoon of the piece and the Young Woman is demure, yet self-assured. These two sketches came a year after La Chauve-Souris debuted Benois’s production, which proved very popular. La Chauve-Souris, by the way, is the French equivalent of “The Bat,” just as Die Fledermaus is the German one.
Nikita Balieff’s La Chauve-Souris theater company was based in Paris, and also visited London and the United States. The Sunday Times, London, December 11, 1932, wrote of Balieff’s production, “He was wittier than ever at the Cambridge, and everything he said had an air of spontaneity—although I am certain it is as carefully rehearsed as the rest of the programme.”
And as artistically done as its costumes and sets by Nicolas Benois. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017