Le papillon (ballet)

Le papillon (The Butterfly) is a 'fantastic ballet' in two acts (four scenes) of 1860, with choreography by Marie Taglioni and music by Jacques Offenbach to a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges.

Performance history

Le papillon was first presented by the Paris Opera Ballet at the Salle Le Peletier on November 26, 1860 after a performance of Lucie de Lammermoor.[1] The principal dancers were Emma Livry (Farfalla/the Butterfly), Louis Mérante (Prince Djalma), Louise Marquet (Fairy Hamza), and Mme. Simon (Diamond Fairy).

The Valse des rayons from the second scene of Act 1 was re-used by Offenbach in the third act ballet for Die Rheinnixen (1864)[2] and parts of the score were inserted in the French version of Whittington, Le Chat du diable (1893).[1] The solo for Le docteur Miracle "Eh! oui, je vous entend!" in the Antonia act of Les Contes d'Hoffmann originated as a Bohémiana in Le papillon.[3]

Marius Petipa created an expanded staging in four acts for the Imperial Ballet with Ludwig Minkus adapting Offenbach's score. It was first presented in January 1874 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in Saint Petersburg with Ekaterina Vazem (Farfalla/the Butterfly), Lev Ivanov (Prince Djalma), Pavel Gerdt (Patimate), Mathil'da Madaeva (Fairy Hamza), and Lubov Radina (Diamond Fairy). Petipa added a variation to the Grand pas des papillons to a waltz by Luigi Venzano especially for Ekaterina Vazem – this variation became known as the Pas Vazem, and was much celebrated among the balletomanes of Saint Petersburg.

Ronald Hynd prepared a production for Houston Ballet with his own adapted scenario and the score re-orchestrated by John Lanchbery, which premiered on 8 February 1979. It entered the repertoire of the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet in Leeds on 7 February 1980.[4] Described as Hynd's tribute to Emma Livry, the plot was pared down and reset in Persia with many of the transformations and comic situations retained.[5] But, compared to the original 1860 material, the score is largely altered by Lanchberry who integrates his own composition inside the main musical corpus, while changing the numbers order and deleting a lot of the original Offenbach's score.

The original ballet was revived in a reconstruction by Pierre Lacotte at the Rome Opera in 1982.[1]


The ballet is set in Circassia.[6] After the Prelude, the first tableau of Act 1 opens with the evil old fairy Hamza treating her servant roughly. Hamza once abducted the Emir's daughter Farfalla who now serves as her maid. Looking in the mirror Hamza wishes only to become young again, but to do this she must be kissed by a young prince.

Resting from a hunt Prince Djalma and his entourage enter. Everyone enjoys the food and wine, although the tutor thinks Farfalla that is the once kidnapped princess. The prince dances a mazurka with the maid and thanks her with a kiss. The tipsy Hamza is teased by the others and flies into a rage, lures Farfalla into a box and using her magic stick, when the box opens again, a beautiful butterfly emerges. Butterflies flutter into the room from doors, windows and even the chimney before being chased out by Hamza.

After the Prince and his entourage have left Hamza's castle they reach a forest clearing, where shortly the butterflies fly in. When one of the butterflies is pinned to a tree by the prince, it suddenly turns into a crying girl. It falls to the ground unconscious and on inspection appears to be the prince’s dance partner of earlier. But it recovers and re-joins the others.

Hamza now arrives in the clearing with her gardener. With her magic stick she locates her maid among the butterflies and tries to catch her in a net. But leaving her magic wand unattended for a moment her gardener Patimate tries to help Farfalla. He touches his mistress with the wand and she is frozen on the spot, upon which the butterflies hasten to capture Hamza in the net. Meanwhile Patimate tells Djalma about Farfalla’s real identity. However, he forgets to take the magic wand and a leprechaun steals in grabs it and rushes away. The prince carries the fairy off to his uncle’s palace.

Act 2 opens at the palace of the emir Ismaël, where the happy Djalma and Farfalla arrive in a golden carriage. It emerges that Farfalla is in fact his daughter and can marry his nephew Djalma. However, when the prince tries to embrace his love Farfalla reminds him how not long before he wanted to impale a butterfly to a tree. Djalma tries again to kiss her, but Hamza, lurking nearby throws herself between them and obtains the kiss meant for Farfalla. The spell works for Hamza and she is turned into a beautiful young girl. Prince Djalma is confused to see the two beautiful women. He courts the rejuvenated fairy, hoping to make Farfalla throws herself into his arms, but Hamza flies into a rage and sends the prince into a magnetic sleep, while Farfalla is changed back into a butterfly. The palace of the Emir is transformed into a park.

The last tableau, in grandiose gardens, has Djalma awakening, and he finds himself surrounded by a swarm of butterflies, including his beloved Farfalla. Hamza enters with her four sisters boasting of her exploits, and secretly dreaming of marrying the prince. As a rehearsal for such an event she summons a band of golden harps, and a torch carrier. Farfalla is attracted by the glow of the torch, but in touching the lamp she burns her wings and the charm fades: she regains her human form and collapses into the arms of the prince. Hamza's sisters then break the magic stick and together transform the Hamza into a statue. The wedding with Djalma now has no more obstacles and the young couple can wed in the fairy palace which appears in the gardens.


  • Offenbach: Le papillon (highlights); London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge, Decca SXL 6588, recorded January 1972.
  • Offenbach: Le papillon (three extracts - music arranged and re-orchestrated by John Lanchberry); WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Pinchas Steinberg, Capriccio, recorded 1986, released 2010.
  • Offenbach - Hommage mécanique - Malibran CDRG 214 ; includes a 30 minutes suite for barrel organ based on Le Papillon in addition to rare music from operas (such as La Diva - 1869- and La Marocaine - 1879)


  1. Yon, Jean-Claude. Jacques Offenbach. Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 2000.
  2. Milnes R. One Long Hymn to Pacifism. Opera, October 2009, 1202-06.
  3. Keck, Jean-Christophe. "Guide d'Écoute." In: Avant-Scène Opéra 235, Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Paris, 2006, p52.
  4. Alexander Bland, The Royal Ballet: The First Fifty Years. Threshold Books, London,1981, p245.
  5. Programme note for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet Christmas season at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 28 December 1982 to 15 January 1983.
  6. Taglioni, Marie; Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Jules-Henri (1861). Le Papillon; ballet-pantomime en deux actes et quatre tableaux par M. Taglioni et H. de Saint-George, etc. p. 8.

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