Giuseppina Bozzacchi was born on this day, 23 November, in Milan in 1853, and died on this day in 1870 – her 17th birthday – 150 years ago.
Bozzacchi created the role of Swanhilda in Arthur Saint-Léon’s ballet Coppélia in 1870 at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris, which was the home of the Paris Opera from 1821 until it was destroyed by fire in 1873.
Saint-Léon had started working on the choreography two years earlier with his favourite ballerina, Adèle Grantzow. Saint-Léon was the ballet master of the Imperial Russian Ballet in St Petersburg and Grantzow danced in St Petersburg and Moscow, and both of them moved regularly between Russia and France.
Léo Delibes wrote a ‘Pas des fleurs’ for her which she took to St Petersburg where Marius Petipa enlarged it, and it became the famous ‘Le Jardin animé’ in Le Corsaire in his 1868 version. Returning to Paris, she began work on Coppélia.
However, she fell ill during the rehearsals, and the ballet was postponed, but when she wasn’t well enough to approach the role even during the following season, the search was on for a new Swanhilda. It was 1869, but Saint-Léon wasn’t happy with any of the dancers he saw.
Grantzow studied in Paris with the revered teacher Caroline Lassiat, known as Madame Dominique, who had been a dancer with the Paris Opéra. Another of her students was the 15-year-old Bozzacchi, and in her, Saint-Léon had found his Swanhilda. By the time of the premiere on 25 May 1870, Bozzacchi was 16, and she made her stage debut in front of Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie.
Two months later France declared war on Prussia, and the German invasion of France brought down the curtain on Coppélia on 31 August after 18 performances. Just two days later, on 2 September, Saint-Léon suffered a heart attack and died; he was 48 and Coppélia was his last work.
The siege of Paris by the Prussian army began in September 1870 and during that time Bozzacchi fell ill with smallpox. She was weak as there was little food available and she died on the morning of her 17th birthday. The celebrated writer Théophile Gautier wrote that the “pretty Italian dancer” who he found “clever and charming” was “a delicate flower with the scent of a violet that was withered by the storm”.
If this isn’t a sad enough background to such a delightful ballet, Adèle Grantzow danced in St Petersburg during the 1870 season but injured a leg leading to thrombosis and, following complications after a leg amputation and typhus, she died at 32 in 1877.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.