Le Corsaire

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The ballet is based on a popular tragic poem by Lord Byron (1788 - 1824), “The Corsair”, published in 1814. Conrad, the protagonist, is an uneasy combination of daring, gallantry, and hatred for himself, that scorns humanity and rambles through life weighted down by the suffering for the loss of his innocent ideals, destroyed in some obscure way.

Pasha Seyd and Gulnare from Le Corsaire presented at the Cairo Opera in 1999, choreographer Abdel-Moneim Kamel

The only redeeming grace in Conrad’s existence is his love for Medora, a Greek slave he freed.

"unchangeable -- unchanged,

Felt but for one from whom he never ranged;

Though fairest captives daily met his eye."

Wounded, captured, and imprisoned, Conrad risks the death by torture at the hands of the cruel Pasha Seyd. Seyd’s concubine, Gulnare, is secretly in love with the prisoner. Conrad once saved her life. Gulnare kills Seyd and frees Conrad, but dies in the attempt. After stopping to give her a single kiss, Conrad hurries back to Medora, but he learns that she died during his absence.

("What reck'd it how?

The love of youth, the hope of better years.

The source of softest wishes, tenderest fears,

The only living thing he could not hate.")

Conrad disappears, leaving his comrades mourning on the seashore.

If it had been faithful to the tragic drama of the poem, perhaps a stronger libretto would have emerged; the story is similar to the Bayadere. Its librettists transformed it into a comedy that, with several variations in the course of the years, has become rather vague.

The flight of the corsairs

A spectacular grand jeté executed by the dancers of the Opera of Cairo.

In 1837 at the King’s Theatre, London, a ballet in two acts based on The Corsair was produced by the French dancer-choreographer François Decombe Albert, with music by Robert Bochsa. It was popular enough to be restaged until 1844.

The version we know today derives from the choreography Joseph Mazilier created in 1856. Mazilier was co-author of the libretto with Jules-Henri Vernoi de Saint-Georges, in turn co-author of the libretto of Giselle. It inflated the role of Medora, comprising elements of the Gulnare character, and reduced Gulnare to a marginal part.

The music was commissioned to Adolphe Adam (1803 - 1856), already the illustrious composer of Giselle. He completed the musical score just a few months before his death.
The ending was changed, with a shipwreck in which nearly everyone dies, except Conrad and Medora, who are cast ashore on a cliff. The scene of the shipwreck was a masterpiece of 19th century staging. It astonished the public and remained the key event of the ballet until the 20th century, when the interest shifted to the virtuoso dancing.

Originally the role of the corsair was not a danced part, it was interpreted by the famous Italian mime, Domenico Segarelli.

In 1858 Jules Perrot, the choreographer of Giselle, introduced a new production of Le Corsaire at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, with Marius Petipa in the role of Conrad. In the scene of the shipwreck Andrei Roller, master of theatrical special effects for the Bolshoi, used electro-galvanic discharges for lightning. This version incorporated new music by Cesar Fists, Ludwig Minkus and Prince Oldenbourg for a new pas de deux by Petipa.

Petipa created several versions of the ballet, the last one in 1899. Each one placed more emphasis on dancing and the classical style.

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From the 1868 version the dream vision of Pasha Seyd set to the music of Le Jardin Animé by Léo Delibes, with Medora, her friend Gulnare, and the female corps de ballet is renowned. Riccardo Drigo composed the music for a pas de trois for Medora, a slave and Conrad, introduced in the Petipa versions.

In the first half of 20th century Le Corsaire was represented almost exclusively in Russia. Vakhtang Chabukiani created a new version of Petipa’s choreography, lengthening the parts for the male dancers. He transformed Drigo’s pas de trois into a pas de deux. This pas de deux has become legendary through the interpretation of Margot Fonteyn (1919 - 1991) and Rudolf Nureyev (1938 - 1993). It was presented in Western Europe for the first time in 1962 at Covent Garden.

The alternate changes through the century and a half of the ballet’s existence demonstrate that the performing arts can be a process. The subject is simply an elaborate series of instructions and materials that must be adapted each time, rather than a product that can be duplicated at any time, like a printed book.

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