Have you ever seen a mummy on stage?
Although the question sounds to be quite funny and easy, if you think about it carefully you will probably find a difficulty in answering.
Although mummies appear many times and almost regularly on the big-screen - from 1932, "The Mummy" directed by Karl Freund to 2017, "The Mummy" directed by Alex Kurtzman - as well as on TV (e.g. 1965, "Belphegor, or Phantom of the Louvre" directed by Arthur Bernède), their appearance on stage is quite unusual. Screen-players refer to a very precise literary source - Arthur Conan Doyle "The Mummy" (1892) - both in describing body, bandages and the horrific aspect of the living-death. Furthermore, the act of evoking and bringing back to life the dead is always connected with its revenge and obscure powers which cannot be easily controlled and defeated by humans.
All these mummies are always spooky and blood-thirsty; they are troubled souls which cannot find peace. These are all big-screen mummies but none of them is "on stage"; so, our question seems to be without an answer... until now.
We must suppose that mummies are not so frequent on stage. This is a very curious fact because Ancient Egypt, before the spread of Egyptomania, can be considered as one of the most enduring and favourite historical period to which poets, librettists and composers paid great attention and there is nothing more Egyptian than a mummy. Just to give you some examples, let's think about "Anthony and Cleopatra" by W. Shakespeare (1607), "Giulio Cesare in Egitto" by G. F. Händel (1724), "die Zauberflöte" by W. A. Mozart (1791), "Aida" by G. Verdi (1871) or "Akhnaten" by P. Glass (1984): although these plays and operas are all staged in Ancient Egypt, with the typical Nile setting and with all the elements recalling the Land of Pharaoh; although we also have "exotic" murders by snakes and venoms as well as (also living) entombment, no mummies appear at all.
So, are there no mummy on stage? Actually not. Indeed, there is one very famous mummy which made its first appearance on stage on January, 18th 1862 in St. Petersburg at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre: Дочь фараона or La Fille du Pharaon (The Pharaoh's Daughter). The history of this ballet is quite controversial: considered as a masterpiece of the Imperial Russian Ballet Company, after the Russian Revolution it has been perceived as an icon of the old tsarist opulence. For this reason the ballet has been excluded from the repertoire until 2000 when Pierre Lacotte restaged it for the Bolshoi Ballet Company. Cesare Pugni composed the music and Marius Ivanovich Petipa - the best well-known 19th Century Russian dancers - choreographed it; this was his greatest success, considered "...a dream from the past..." because of its impressive choreographies, magnificent and colourful costumes à l'egyptienne, endless processions (more than 400 people on stage), the sumptuous, large scale and meticulously painted sets designed by Wagner and Roller. In this ballet, Ancient Egypt is depicted full of sentimentality, pathos, exoticism with some late echoes of Romanticism. The plot, written by J.-H. Vernoy de Saint-Georges, is quite easy and follows the literary source used in order to write the libretto, just with few differences.
The ballet takes inspiration from a novel written in 1858 by T. Gaultier, Le Roman de la Momie (The Romance of the Mummy). This tells the adventures of a noble Englishman, Lord Wilson, who under the influence of opium is transported back in time to Ancient Egypt in a sort of hallucinatory dream. In this wonderful dream, he is "trasformed" into an Ancient Egyptian called Ta-Hor and falls in love with Aspicia, the "Pharaoh's Daughter". This ballet shows for the first time in history a mummy on a stage.
In Act 1, Scene 2 something very strange and quirk happens; something never happened before on a stage and in a ballet: a mummy awakes!
After a sandstorm Lord Wilson and other travellers and merchants take shelter into a pyramid. The caretaker of the pyramid ask them not to make noise because there lies Aspicia, the daughter of one of the most powerful pharaohs. Lord Wilson falls asleep and the dream takes form: the walls of the sepulchre disappear and four mummies come to life and leave their sarcophagi. After them comes to life the mummy of Aspicia too. Bending over the Englishman, she lays her hand on his heart and a magical metamorphosis takes place: all the characters become Ancient Egyptian, all enchanted by the (no longer mummified) Aspicia.
In this ballet, we have two different type of mummies: the first one is a "living" mummy (Aspicia) performed by the Prima Ballerina, and four other mummies lying in coffins and moved by stage machinery. In spite of being wrapped in bandages and wearing the funerary mask like the four ones on stage, Aspicia looks really alive. According to the first costumes sketches designed by Kelwer and Stolyakov, Aspicia wears a long tunic which recalls a ceremonial beaded dress and over her head she carries a headdress very similar to an uraeus. Nothing in her first stage costume and during her first appearance suggests she is dead, although she is still a mummy. But she is not only a mummy: first she is a person. We must consider the great interest paid by archaeologists and the public to mummies during the 19th century, which spread to speculation and gamble, as Gaultier writes: "...Pharaohs are becoming scarce at the rate at which they are being dug up; there are not enough left for everybody. They are very much in demand, and it is long since any have been manufactured...". In dressing her like a living body, the costume designers as well as the choreographer invite us to respect her physical and human remains, instead of considering it as an object.
Alessio is a PhD student from Italy conducting his research at the School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex
Cesare Pugni, La Fille du Pharaon, Bolshoi Theatre, a coproduction of Bel Air Media, Bolshoi Theatre, MHK, Mezzo, with partecipation of France3 and SWR Baden Baden, and support of Centre National de la Cinematographie
(C) 2003 Bel Air Media / Theatre Bolshoi / MHK / Mezzo
(C) 2004 Bel Air Classique
Act 1, scene 2 "Le Rêve" (The Dream)
Aspicia Zvetlana Zakharova Lord Wilson/Taor Sergeij Filim