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The Ballet World of RESPIGHI

Think of ballet, think of Respighi, and the work that immediately springs to mind is, of course, his ever-popular La Boutique fantasque. There were others of course: for instance, the spectacular Belkis, Queen of Sheba and the three ballet scores commissioned for the Leonidov Company: Le asruzie gli Colombina. the comedy ballet based on the traditional Commedia dell’arte characters; the delicate Sevres de la vieille France based on themes from 17th and 18th century France; and La pentola magica that pays tribute to a group of less well known Russian composers.

It may come as a surprise that so many of Respighi’s works were choreographed, many after the composer’s death. Fontane di Roma exits in a choreography by Nives Poli with sets by Nicolas Benois (based on old Italian paintings), premiered at La Scala on 31 January 1941. Pini di Roma was a ballet premiered at the Terme di Caracalla, in a choreography by Margherita Wallmann, on July 15 1946. In 1933, Gli Uccelli (The Birds) with choreography by Cia Fornaroli was premiered at the Casino Municipale, San Remo. This ballet was presented again in 1937, together with the premiere of Lucrezia and a new staging of Maria Egiziaca, as a kind of commemoration after Respighi’s death the year before. Music from Ancient Airs and Dances was choreographed for the premiere of the ballet on 28 December 1937, at La Scala, choreographed by Wallmann with a libretto by the composer’s widow, Elsa. Respighi’s Bach arrangement, Passacaille de Bach, was used in a Cocteau-Petit ballet collaboration premiered in 1941 at the Champs-Elysées, Paris. Later another ballet, by Margherita Wallmann and Elsa Respighi was produced from the same Bach/Respighi work.

Elsa’s biography mentions Margherita Wallmann: "In June ( 1933) we stayed briefly in Florence and saw a most interesting performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Mendelssohn’s music, produced by Max Reinhardt in the Boboli Gardens. It was there that Respighi met Margherita Wallmann, whom we had heard of as one of Max Reinhardt’s entourage and a very gifted young Viennese choreographer. We knew that Reinhardt, Bruno Walter and the managements of the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival thought highly of her. Respighi was pleasantly impressed by this extremely young artist’s beauty and intelligence."

Dance also featured in several of the Respighi operas. There is the lovely ‘Dance’ from Act II of Belfagor, recalling the Ancient Airs and Dances music, that is both stately and breezy. Then there is the ‘Dance, to greet the dawn’, a sinuous eastern, ritual sacred dance performed in honour of Baal in Act II of Semirama. There is also a significant dance content in Respighi’s orchestration and arrangement of Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo for the opera commissioned from La Scala for the 1934/35 season. When Respighi went to Milan to supervise the preparations, according to Elsa "[he] had seen and approved Oppo’s sets and discussed the unusual staging of the opera with the producer Wallenstein. He wanted the members of the chorus accommodated in the orchestra while the corps de ballet took their place on the stage. The idea was to supplement the choral singing visually with graceful mime and dance. But in a traditionalist theatre like La Scala it was far from easy to persuade scene-shifters, electricians, stage-managers etc. to accept such an innovation. Everything was ‘impossible’! Ottorino had to explain to each one individually how the problem could be solved and finally managed to get the chorus ensconced in the centre of the orchestra pit under a kind of canopy of dark crepe so as to be hidden from the view of the spectators in boxes and galleries. The effect of the sham chorus dancing on stage in perfect synchronisation with the singing below was extraordinary and just as impressive the scene in the Elysian Fields realised by means of gauzes of different grey through which glided shadowy figures also veiled in grey."

Like Puccini, Respighi took an active interest in the production of his stage productions. Elsa Respighi, in her biography, Ottorino Respighi, writes about the composer’s visit to Russia in 1902 where he resided for nine months playing first viola at the St. Petersburg Opera House and later at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. She tells us that Respighi had a perfect command of Russian and comments: "Respighi was distinctly impressed by the operas and ballets given at the Bolshoi Theatre and he especially admired the sets and costumes of Lorovin and Bakst. These performances had an undoubted influence on the formation of his taste in stage-settings and choreography. When he returned to Italy, he tried in vain to interest impresarios and theatre managers in new production methods; the advisability of having the artist responsible for the sets to devise and design the costumes, the importance of lighting from a psychological as well as a realistic viewpoint, and the art of moving the chorus in crowd scenes on the stage so as to bring the action to life. [Of his opera for puppets. La bella dormente nel bosco, he commented that it was a joy to work with actors one could pack away into a box after rehearsal, so that they could not bother one with complaints and gossip, as their flesh and blood colleagues do!] Many years passed before the authorities at La Scala decided to engage Nicola Benois to design sets and costumes for Respighi’s ballet Belkis and to invite foreign producers to mount new opera productions." [Respighi had admired Nicola’s father’s (the painter Alexandre Benois) sets in St Petersburg].

Diaghilev and Respighi

Elsa Respighi, writing in her biography, recalls a meeting between Respighi and Diaghilev:- "At the beginning of August (1919) we received a letter from Diaghilev inviting Respighi to join him in Naples to discuss the adaptation of Cimarosa’s Le astuzie femminili and talk over other plans - a delightful interlude during our stay on Capri. Diaghilev, a man of great intelligence and rare taste, always kept up a flow of conversation that was lively and fascinating both for the themes he chose and the highly individual views he expressed. At the time he and Massine were looking for a genuine old costume design of Pulcinella and making notes for the ballet that Stravinsky had been commissioned to write on the subject. And so every evening the four of us visited the theatres and cinemas in the port area to see the cheapest variety shows, some of which were really colourful and interesting. 1 recall one evening in one of these little palaces where the best seats were wooden benches - they cost twenty centesimi - when a pretty working-girl, nudging me and winking at Respighi, whispered confidentially, ‘Signorina, he’s an artist isn’t he?’ - and seemed very taken with him.

"Diaghilev was thinking of broadening the repertoire of his famous Russian ballet company with some old Italian operas, suitably abridged and adapted of course. To tell the truth, we felt that Diaghilev’s ideas on the matter were rather vague and although Le astuzie femminili was so eminently suited to the purpose because of the subject and the Russian melodies used by Cimarosa for the dances in the finale, the experiment did not turn out a success. Naturally when singers are involved everything becomes difficult and complicated and even Diaghilev, who had been the originator of so many brilliant ideas, had to admit that he was on the wrong tack. The impresario, incidentally, was very pleased with the success of La Boutique fantasque and planned to work with Respighi on another ballet.

La Boutique fantasque
is a colourful, spectacular ballet based on the idea of a toyshop in which all the toys come to life after closing time. The supremely melodic music is Respighi’s zestful arrangements and orchestrations of Rossini’s "sins of old age" (short instrumental pieces and songs written as relaxation during Rossini’s retirement). Respighi had long been fascinated by these rare Rossini items and had suggested to Diaghilev in 1917 that, in orchestral form, they might form the basis of a successful ballet. The scenario and choreography for La Boutique fantasque were by Leonide Massine who also danced one of the principal roles, and the decor and costumes were the creation of Andre Derain. The first performance was given by the Ballets Russes on 5 June 1919 at the Alhambra Theatre, London. The Times reported that the audience was "sent off its head with delight".

Respighi’s suite from the ballet has been recorded a number of times notably by Andrew Davis? (CBS Masterworks Sony), Charles Dutoit (Decca) and Jesus Lopez-Cobos (Telarc). The ballet is set in a toyshop in Nice during the 1860s. Briefly the story relates how a pair of Can-Can Dance dolls (in love, of course) are sold to different buyers, but then are rescued and reunited by the other toys who fight off the purchasers and attack the shop owner. The dances include: a Tarantella, a Mazurka, a Cossack Dance, a Waltz, a Can-Can and a Galop. The other music includes an exquisite nocturne.

Following the success of La Boutique fantasque, Respighi returned, in 1925, to Rossini’s "sins" and arranged an orchestral suite, Rossiniana. It is unclear whether this work was ever choreographed

The Leonidov Ballet Trilogy

The Ileana Leonidov Company was established in Italy. It took its name from that of its prima ballerina, the very beautiful but, so it is said, not over-talented Russian dancer. Their impresario, Dr Aldo Molinari, commissioned three scores from Respighi for premiere in November 1920 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. The music was pastiche, in the manner of La Boutique fantasque, allowing Respighi to show off his skill in tasteful instrumentation with eclectic use of material from various periods and countries and in various styles. Later Respighi banned further performances of his three Leonidov ballet scores and it was not until some ten years after his death that Sevres and La pentola magica were handed over to Ricordi for publication. Le astuzie di Colombina remains in manuscript.

The Leonidov Ballet Trilogy has been recorded by Respighi Society President, Adriano, conducting the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) on Marco Polo 8.223346. The description in this section has been taken from the CD booklet notes.

Le astuzie di Colombina, also known as Scherzo Veneziano, is set in two tableaux with an intermezzo. It lasts some thirty minutes and has a very simple plot involving the usual characters of the traditional Commedia dell’arte. Three Venetian wives plot together against their husbands, with the help of Colombina (Columbine) and her friend Arlecchino (Harlequin). Colombina disguises herself as a lady to seduce the three husbands who have decided to go out to amuse themselves without their wives. In the second tableau, set in the Piazza San Marco, the three husbands, jealous of each other as they jostle for the favours of the mysterious masked lady, fight a duel. The lady then reveals herself as Colombina. The three unfaithful husbands are finally forgiven and everyone joins in a boisterous Furlana.

Respighi’s flare for wit and irony is very apparent. In Adriano’s reading, the music comes magically to life; it sparkles, it charms and it amuses. Its clever, comic musical figures perfectly catch the buffoonery of the larger-than-life characters. The more serious passages of tenderness, pathos and action are all well attuned too, and a very wide variety of styles is employed from many periods. There is Baroque elegance, there are popular Venetian tunes (with a romantic tenor voice at one point in Tableau One), there is music in the style of Respighi’s Pini di Roma, and perhaps a parody of the style of Richard Strauss.

Sevres de la vieille France is a shorter less boisterous work. It is based on themes from 17th and 18th century France. charmingly orchestrated. It opens with a perky yet delicate Menuet d’Exaudet-Gavotte Louis XIII, followed by a Tambourin that trips along merrily and gracefully; a Bergere that sounds insouciant, like something by Poulenc; and finally an extended Gavotte that, in spirit, is something of a mix of Johann Strauss, Waldteufel and Tchaikovsky in Nutcracker mode. The curtains are opened by a Moor and his two little assistants to reveal porcelain statues of famous dancers and ballerinas. They come to life and join in a game of blind-man’s buff, before the Moor makes them return to their pedestals. The grand finale is reserved for the famous Mademoiselle Camargo and her entourage, as she once appeared before Louis XV at Versailles. The music is full of charm and wit, and all four movements enchant. Originally the first Menuet was performed also with a singer, the text based on an old French poem, but the manuscript is now lost.

In La pentola magica (The Magic Pot) Respighi pays tribute to a group of less well known Russian composers although the opening Prelude said, in the booklet notes, to be in the style of Grechaninov, might equally be claimed to be influenced by Ravel. The Armenian Song, sung by a distant boy soprano, enchants in Canzone armena-Danza while the dance lilts dreamily. The grand ‘The Entry of the Tsar with the Bridegrooms’ follows in the tradition of Arensky and it sounds somewhat Elgarian. So too does ‘Scene of the Tsarevich’ modelled after Pachulski with an anticipatory touch of Bernard Herrmann, while the ‘The Dance of the Tartar Archers’ has Anton Rubinstein as its inspiration (taken from his ballet Demon). The remaining numbers are Respighi originals partly based on Russian popular themes. These movements are: ‘Introduction and Khovorod Dance’, ‘Cossack Dance’; ‘Dance of Seduction’; ‘Scene of the kisses and Arrival of the Tsar’; and Finale. Unfortunately the libretto of La pentola magica does not seem to have survived and so it is difficult to imagine the story based on the scanty information of the movement titles as above.

The three Leonidov ballets use an orchestra that in addition to the usual strings, has an oboe, a bassoon, pairs of flutes, clarinets, horns and trumpets and three trombones. The ensemble is completed by a harp, a celesta and a percussion section of drums, cymbals, glockenspiel and triangle, with a bird-scarer in Le astuzie. Sevres makes no use of trumpets and trombones with a percussion section confined to triangle and glockenspiel.

Belkis. Queen of Sheba

In 1931 Respighi began the composition of the music for the epic-ballet Belkis, Regina di Saba. One of his most ambitious stage works, it employed an enormous orchestra including such unconventional instruments as sitars and wind-machines, off-stage brass, a chorus, several vocal soloists and a narrator who related the legendary story in verse. The exoticism of the biblical legend of Solomon and Sheba greatly appealed to Respighi. He emulated the melodic characteristics of ancient Hebrew songs; and stressed oriental rhythms with a vast assortment of native percussion instruments.

Elsa Respighi, attended the rehearsals and wrote, "the score is dazzlingly rich and contains many new and beautiful ideas". His literary collaborator, Claudio Guastalla wrote the scenario based on an opera libretto on the subject that he had once fashioned from Holy Writ. The celebrated Russian choreographer Leonide Massine arranged tableaux and dances of great variety and engaged the excellent Persian ballerina, Leila Bederkhan, for the part of Belkis with the fine young dancer, David Lichine as Solomon. Nicola Benois created the opulent backcloths and sumptuous sets as well as the designs for over 600 costumes. The ballet lasts some eighty minutes. It tells of the journey undertaken in the year 1000 B.C. by Belkis, Queen of Sheba, in response to an imperial message from Solomon, the King of Israel. The birds and the winds had told him that he is loved from afar by this beautiful young Queen of the South so he sends for her so that he may render her great honour and homage. Belkis travels across the desert in a huge treasure-laden caravan with warriors and slaves, elephants and camels, and her union with Solomon is celebrated by tumultuous rejoicing. Two years later Respighi resolved to preserve the best of his opulent 80-minute score in two orchestral suites; however, in the face of deteriorating health, he only managed to complete this one suite, published in 1934. This has been recorded by Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia Orchestra for Chandos. The movements follow the action of the ballet but the Chandos performance interchanges the two middle movements to provide overall musical and dramatic contrast. The first movement ‘Dream of Solomon’ is set in Solomon’s torch-lit harem in Jerusalem. The opening music broods as he gazes at the starry skies. A solemn march, with heavy bass tread and magisterial brass and vivid oriental colouring follows: "The beautiful King enters, his bearing religious and majestic, lost in profound thoughts." After an expressive cello solo, unison strings sing a voluptuous and passionate love song reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade from the scene later in the ballet portraying the actual meeting between Belkis and Solomon. The ‘War Dance’, opening with a very wild and raunchy Dance on the Drums occurs during the final scene of celebration, "bronzed and near-naked young athletes run on, rolling enormous drums onto which they jump and dance thundering out the rhythm with frantic feet." Then the music suddenly swerves into material that sounds extraordinarily like Aaron Copland in western hoe-down rhythm mode. The next movement is ‘The Dance of Belkis at Dawn’. It represents Respighi’s music at its most sensual and voluptuous - an erotic picture of Belkis, as first seen in the ballet, reclining on a ruby-studded divan of green malachite watched over by four black slaves, in the luxuriant hanging gardens of Kitor. "...Belkis awakens, and raising her hands to salute the light of the world, dances in barefoot honour of the newly risen sun."

The last movement is an ‘Orgiastic Dance’ marking the union of Solomon and Sheba. Raymond Hall, the New York Times critic observed: "The final orgy of the thousand-odd people on the stage at La Scala works up into a deafening tumult of sound and a paroxysm of rhythm that finds a par only in the Dionysian climaxes of the Sacre du Printemps. Respighi has pounded out his uproar with an insistence little short of sardonic fury. The setting is Solomon’s marvellous palace garden of cedars and palm trees where a feast is prepared: "A mighty horde of young men and girls, warriors and slaves of every race and colour rises up in an orgiastic dance letting loose a mighty clamour of laughter and greetings. And then at the peak of the furore, two high thrones gradually become visible in the distance, and seated majestically upon them are King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba - motionless as idols of gold." It brought the La Scala audience to its feet in a frenzy of excitement.

Belkis, Regina di Saba was premiered on 23rd January 1932 at La Scala, Milan. It was highly praised in the Italian and foreign press. Raymond Hall was moved to write: "Respighi has achieved a technical tour de force: he strove mainly for colour and spectacle and has achieved his goal brilliantly, immersing his score in vivid oriental atmosphere from beginning to end. As a lavish spectacle, Belkis, Regina di Saba represents one of the milestone achievements of this house." Alas it had a run of only eleven performances; the ballet was apparently never produced again, and the score was published only in a piano reduction. As Elsa suggested, Belkis was simply too big to have a realistic chance of becoming a repertory item.

Some Recommended Recordings:

La Boutique fantasque (with Rachmaninov Respighi Cinq Etudes-Tableaux) Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra TELARC CD-80396

The Leonidov Ballet Trilogy: Le Astulzie di Colombina; Sevres de la vieille France; La pentola magica. Adriano conducting the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) MARCO POLO 8.223346

Belkis, Queen of Sheba (with Metamorphoseon) Geoffrey Simon conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra CHANDOS CHAN 8405

Note: A profusely illustrated book (published in Italian only), Ottorino Respighi by various authors and published by ERI (Edizioni RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana), in 1985 shows sets of many of the ballets (and operas) together with some fascinating pictures of Respighi with friends and musical celebrities.

Acknowledgements: We are grateful to Chandos Records, and to Edward Johnson, author of the notes for Belkis, Queen of Sheba, for their kind permission to quote from the booklet notes of the Chandos recording listed above. We also acknowledge our debt to Marco Polo Records for permission to quote from the booklet notes for Adriano ‘s recording of the Leonidov ballets; and to Ricordi for allowing us to quote from Elsa Respighi’s biography of her husband, Ottorino Respighi.

Ian Lace 2001


Record Review

Ottorino RESPIGHI Metamorphoseon. Modi XII. Tema e Variazioni Rossiniana Suite for Orchestra Burlesca Passacaglia on J.S. Bach Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Hanson DGM MDG 335 1030-2 [69:23]


This is a welcome third recording of the work commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50 anniversary in 1930 by Serge Koussevitzky. The playing is at a rather slow tempo and refined if not overly smooth. George Hanson brings out some fine detail especially in the woodwind sections. Strings dominate in the tutti passages and the brass instruments sound subdued in the final section. The orchestral sound appears to be projected forward, towards the listener, in this recording


The CD is entitled Orchestral Works but there is no allusion to Rome here but rather Capri & Taormina in the first section of this Suite. It was orchestrated from some of Rossini’s minor piano pieces (‘Les Riens’ as he called them). This is a warm, lively and well balanced rendition


The sleeve notes claim that this is the first recording of this work but, in fact, Adriano conducted it for Marco Polo ten years ago. The piece dates from 1906 and is therefore an early orchestral work. The performers give a good impression of Respighi’s early style.


At last a new recording of Respighi’s orchestral interpretation of J S Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor commissioned by Toscanini also in 1930. This is a fine measured rendition.

Charlie Niven


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