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Petrushka: The Unhappiest Puppet Story Ever

Stavinsky’s ballet about the less fortunate, more tragic Russian cousin of Pinocchio.

Think of Petrushka as a Russian Pinocchio, but without a sweet old puppet maker and a happy Disney ending.

In a nutshell, Stravinksy’s ballet, Petrushka was about a puppet who came to life, but who was burdened by pesky human emotions like love, jealousy, and rage.

The ballet, which premiered only about a year after the successful premiere of The Firebird, was another huge success for the composer, with the help of the famous choreographer Sergei Diaghilev.

The revered Vaclav Nijinsky as Petrushka, 1911. Photo by the Dover Street Studios.

It’s set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 1830s. The Shrovetide Fair (basically, Russian Mardi Gras) is underway. There are noisy carnival barkers in brightly colored booths, a ferris wheel, a carousel, and of course, a puppet theater. The street is filled with the sounds of drunken hucksters, the whirling squeal of a street organ, and the smell of cotton candy. (Did they have cotton candy in 1830s Russia? Let’s say they did.)

Off to the side, the curtain of the puppet theater rises, revealing three puppets hanging on a wall: a dashing Moor, bedecked in a turban and pantaloons;  a petite and pretty ballerina, and a clumsy, awkward little runt of a doll named Petrushka. The magician waves a flute like a magic wand, taps each puppet with it, and they begin to dance.

This is where things get complicated.

Like the late-blooming high school nerd who has a crush on the cheerleader, who, in turn, has a crush on the captain of the football team, Petrushka is twitterpated with the ballerina from the get-go. But his scrawny puppet body of straw and sawdust is no match for the swashbuckling moor, whose dark features and graceful moves have (literally) swept the ballerina off her feet.

This is not a story where the underdog gets the girl.

To make a long story short, there’s a duel.  Petrushka dies, but his ghost comes back to torment his magician puppet maker, who he damns for giving him life in the first place. If ONLY he could have stayed a puppet!

The music, laden with Russian folk tunes and brimming with atmosphere, was set to the choreography of one of the best ballet impresarios who ever lived. Critics often regard Petrushka as a perfect fusion of music, ballet, choreography, and history.

Hear the score on this week’s broadcast of SymphonyCast on Classical 91.7, featuring a performance by the New York Philharmonic under maestro Alan Gilbert. Music by Durey, Ravel, and Offenbach also shares the program. SymphonyCast airs every Saturday evening at 8:00 on Houston Public Media, Classical 91.7.


The opening scene of Petrushka — At the Shrovetide Fair (AKA Carnival, AKA Russian Mardi Gras.) Bolshoi Ballet Company, with Andrey Chistiakov conducting Bolshoi State Academic Theatre Orchestra