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Paris Opéra Ballet in La Dame aux camélias at the Palais Garnier

Posted on June 20, 2006

John Neumeier is no stranger to the Paris Opéra Ballet, the company having already performed his versions of The Nutcracker, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Sylvia, besides the Magnificat he made for them. Now it has acquired his La Dame aux camélias, which he had originally made in 1978 for Marcia Haydée and the Stuttgart Ballet; it is currently in the repertory of the Hamburg Ballet, which he has directed for over 30 years.

There have been several other ballets on the subject – including Frederick Ashton’s 1963 one-act Marguerite and Armand, now probably the best known – but Neumeier’s is, I imagine, the most complex.

It was directly inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel, which reflects the author’s own experience in his unhappy love affair with the beautiful courtesan Marie Duplessis, who died of tuberculosis at 23, after an adventurous life. A quotation from Dumas in the copious programme notes tells us that Marguerite Gautier (i.e. Marie) attended all the theatre first nights invariably wearing or carrying camelias, hence her nickname “la Dame aux camélias”. Her striking looks attracted a profusion of rich lovers (Franz Liszt was among her admirers, even giving her piano lessons), initially satisfying her hunger for wealth and luxury, but it was her affair with young Armand Duval that most aroused her passion.

Like the novel, the ballet opens after her death, in her apartments, with the scene – performed in silence – of the auction of her remaining belongings, items of furniture being removed or shunted around as customers enter. The curtain is already up as the audience arrives; at both sides of the stage the space is extended towards the auditorium, with, on the left, an elderly man sitting stoically still. He turns out to be M. Duval (guest Michaël Denard), Armand’s father. His son arrives distraught, and they commiserate. After this Prologue, Act I – accompanied, like the whole ballet, by music by Chopin, in this instance the Piano Concerto No. 2 – goes back to the beginning of the story.

A central feature of Neumeier’s treatment is his coupling of Marguerite’s 19th century story with that of Manon Lescaut’s 18th century one, some parallels easily springing to mind. A ballet on the latter subject is seen being performed at the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris with Marguerite and Armand (Aurélie Dupont and Manuel Legris on June 20 first night) in the audience. Manon and Des Grieux (Isabelle Ciaravola and José Martinez) reappear later. An added justification for the doubling is that, apparently, an annotated copy of the Abbé Prévost’s moral tale was found among Marie’s effects.

The lovers share a devouring passion, as is seen in a series of passionate pas de deux; also, for some minutes they lie entwined on the jutting out right-hand section, where at other moments Armand is seen reading with seeming attention (Manon Lescaut, perhaps?). Both roles are extremely demanding, technically and interpretatively. Dupont danced with technical mastery and great intensity, while Legris gave an altogether magnificent performance, throwing himself to the ground several times, rolling over with Marguerite and executing perilous leaps and turns while expressing a variety of violent emotions. The passion fades after Marguerite’s expulsion from the country house in Act II (an event impossible to explain without words: La traviata triumphs there) and later they both form other liaisons.

Act III is somewhat over-complicated, with Marguerite’s nightmare visions of Manon, the couple meeting again in the Champs-Elysées, and new characters introduced, with big roles for the courtesan Olympia and her companion (Myriam Ould-Braham and Karl Paquette, both excellent). There is a large cast for the two ball scenes, but at the end Marguerite dies alone.

Jürgen Rose’s scenery and costumes are elegant in design and colour, while the choice of the music, sometimes for piano solo, did not always strike me as felicitous. The company gave of its considerable best; understandably, Neumeier looked very happy as he acknowledged the enthusiastic applause. The ballet is due to open the new season, again at the Palais Garnier. Running concurrently with it at Opéra Bastille in June was a triple bill of works by Maurice Béjart.

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