Conceived as an emotional memory play, John Neumeier’s La Dame aux Camélias is a haunting exploration of the ephemeral nature of love.
Created for Stuttgart Ballet in 1978, La Dame aux Camélias entered the repertory of Paris Opéra Ballet in 2006. Jürgen Rose’s settings are sparse and simple, while his costumes are a beautifully detailed balance of authentic period style and balletic practicality.
Neumeier set La Dame aux Camélias to a carefully selected program of music by Frédéric Chopin. Having the score played chiefly on grand piano adds an extra layer of beauty and intimacy to the work. This performance featured the exquisite work of Emmanuel Strosser and Frédéric Vaysse-Knitter on grand piano. Maestro James Tuggle delivered a delicately sensitive rendition of Chopin’s music by the Paris Opéra Orchestra.
The audience enters to an open stage, showing Marguerite’s empty apartment. A silent prologue begins in full house lights, as devoted maid Nanine enters to begin clearing before the auction personnel arrive. Armand Duvall rushes on and collapses, utterly distraught to find that Marguerite has died. He begins to tell the story of their great love.
This initial sequence involves distinctly operatic-looking costumes, with men in dark suits and women in wide Victorian hoop skirts.
Act one begins with a scene set at the ballet, where society guests have gathered to watch Manon Lescaut. Marguerite enters in her dark purple gown, seen as one of the items at the auction.
In line with Neumeier’s focus on psychology, the love story of Marguerite and ardent admirer Armand is intrinsically entwined with their reflection on their “stage” counterparts, Manon and des Grieux.
Back at Marguerite’s home, the pair’s first pas de deux is languorously slow and gentle, clearly conveying the tenderness of their love. Racked with (silent) coughs, Marguerite’s ill health is already evident as she sashays from ball to ball, evert followed by the devoted Armand.
The sharing of memories continues in act two, with Armand recollecting the time he followed Marguerite to a country house. In the ballet’s most delightful sequence, Neumeier provides wonderfully playful choreography for the party guests.
Left alone, Armand and Marguerite dance a pas de deux of incredible intimacy. While there are no particularly suggestive moves, there is nonetheless a palpable sense of eroticism in the duet. The audience has the sense of being witness to a very private moment between the pair, whose love is very strong at this point.
Monsieur Duvall, father of Armand, takes over the narrative for a spell, recalling how he visited the country house and instructed Marguerite to cease the affair with his son. Marguerite acquiesces, but her devastation is clear. Armand returns to find that Marguerite gone, and rushes back to Paris to find her.
In act three Marguerite and Armand are reunited, expressing their deep passion in a soaring final pas de deux that brought loud cries of acclaim from the appreciative audience.
Neumeier provides one final burst of full company energy with a grand ball. Dressed all in black, the elegance of the corps is at a premium. Marguerite is left devastated when she receives an envelope from Armand that he has filled with cash.
Armand reads the final sequence from Marguerite’s diary. Against Nanine’s wishes, Marguerite rises from her death bed to have one more attempt at life, attending the ballet in a bright red dress. She sees the final act of Manon Lescaut and is struck by Manon’s predicament. Returning home, a fantasy sequence unfolds in which Marguerite watches the dying Manon and then dances with her. Armand likewise interacts once with des Grieux.
The two lead characters of La Dame aux camélias are massive roles, both on stage for almost the entire performance. Eleonora Abbagnato and Stéphane Bullion dance with unfailing grace and focus, immersing themselves entirely in the passionate love of their characters.
Occasionally called upon to dance with her hair down, Abbagnato creates a most human character in Marguerite. The dying courtesan holds on to her dignity as long as possible, torn, as is Manon, between love and luxury.
A very handsome dancer, Bullion brings a comfortable air of nobility to Armand, evocatively expressing the young man’s longing and sorrow.
La Dame aux camélias was reviewed at Palais Garnier, Paris 7.30pm Thursday 3 January 2019. The 2018/19 season of La Dame aux camélias has now closed.
Photos: #1-#6 Svetlana Loboff, Opéra National de Paris; #7 Simon Parris