La Dame aux Camélias
Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris:
Marguerite Gautier – Aurélie Dupont
Armand Duval – Jiří Bubeníček
Monsieur Duval – Michaël Denard
Manon Lescaut – Mathilde Froustey
Des Grieux – Jérémie Bélingard
Prudence Duvernoy – Ludmilla Pagliero
Le Duc – Eric Monin
Nanine – Béatrice Martel
Le Comte de N – Simon Valastro
Olympia – Mathilde Froustey
Gaston Rieux – Vincent Chaillet
Frédéric Chopin – Music
John Neumeier – Choreography
Jürgen Rose – Sets & Costumes
Rolf Warter – Lighting
Emmanuel Stosser & Frédéric Vaysse-Knitter (piano)
Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 18 February, 2010
Venue: Palais Garnier, Paris
John Neumeier’s 1978 La Dame aux Camélias based on Alexandre Dumas fils‘s 1848 novel of the same title has become one of those works which has slowly spread around the world of dance, acquired by several companies in search of a bankable three-act narrative work which will pull in the punters, something it most clearly does in Paris for this current sold-out run. It certainly ticks several boxes in this revival, not only in being presented in the French capital (where the narrative is mainly set) but also in being danced to Chopin, whose bicentenary the music world is celebrating this year.
The ballet certainly sits handsomely on the stage of the Palais Garnier, and both Jürgen Rose’s costumes and Rolf Warter’s lighting are a total delight, the former sumptuous, the latter atmospheric and evocative in Rose’s clever use of a mainly plain cyclorama which changes chameleon-like in hue and tone. More problematic is the use of Chopin for the score. Admittedly, Neumeier insisted that the pieces used (largos, préludes, valses, the Andante Spianato and the Piano Concerto No.2 among others) be played in their original form (Act II is solely to solo piano music), but it is the choice of composer which remains questionable. Chopin’s internal sound world ensures that choreography is more than likely to sit uneasily with it – it is most certainly never an accompaniment.
And so it proves with La Dame aux Camélias, in which, at times, the music is wholly inappropriate to what is transpiring on the stage, such as when the Piano Concerto accompanies Act I, in which Marguerite Gautier attends the ballet at the Théâtre des Variétés, meets Armand Duval and promptly falls in love with him. The music’s structure and atmosphere are often ridden over by inappropriate narrative. I can think of only two choreographers who stand out as successful users of Chopin’s music: Frederick Ashton with A Month in the Country and Jerome Robbins with Dances at a Gathering and The Concert (adding perhaps Mikhail Fokine’s Les Sylphides to orchestrated Chopin). Neumeier does not join them.
He is undeniably an intelligent choreographer, but this ballet suffers from long-windedness and I longed for Ashton’s justly famed ability to distil narrative into one-act (A Month in Country – a five act play originally – and The Dream are perfect examples). Indeed, in a desire to make telling comparisons and comments on the main couple’s nature and fate Neumeier has added Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux, who appear at times throughout the evening. It is a good idea on paper, but muddies the waters in terms of the story, and it is only at the very end when the dying Marguerite joins them in a yearning pas de trios, in which she seems both to fuse spiritually and meld physically with Manon, her alter ego, that this device really means something.
Elsewhere Neumeier delivers ball scenes, a fête champêtre, ballet performances et al. with curiously bland and uninformative choreography – one needs think only of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon in which even the ‘padding’ of the ensembles serve as a social commentary on the decadence of the Régence, to see that it could be so much better. Neumeier came to prominence as a dancer under John Cranko in Stuttgart and one can see the heavy influence of the South African choreographer in the energetic and often acrobatic lifts in pas de deux and Neumeier’s treatment of the ball scenes; Cranko’s Onegin especially is often evoked. In addition, MacMillan’s Manon, Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand and A Month in the County, and Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering are not far away, the last two sharing many choices of specific Chopin pieces with La Dame aux Camélias.
The narrative is further confused by sundry courtesans who are not differentiated in choreographic or character terms and the conceit of the whole ballet being a ‘flashback’ in the minds of Armand and his father on the occasion of the sale of the late Marguerite’s personal effects, with the billboard announcing the auction making a regular appearance throughout the evening. Confused? You may be forgiven for being so. But ultimately, it matters not. The heart of this ballet lies in its portrayal of the relationship between the two lovers, and it stands or falls on them.
In Aurélie Dupont, the Opéra has an unlikely consumptive – she is singularly healthy-looking dancer with an open and confident technique. She is not helped by the few occasions when Neumeier indicates the fateful disease that afflicts her; a few shakes of the shoulders, a light cold perhaps, and then she is on her deathbed. However, in what is a rare occasion in this company, they fielded a guest artist, here Jiří Bubeníček as Armand, and thereby helped matters considerably. Bubeníček is a dancer greatly favoured by Neumeier, well-versed in the choreographer’s style and the creator of several roles in his ballets. He showed impressive acting talent, making the confusions, desires, elation and frustrations of the character clear for all to see and follow. His technique is less diamond-cut than that of the French dancers, but he infuses his dancing with far greater nuance and as the tale progressed to its inevitable tragic ending, he whipped Dupont up into an impressively emotional climax to the work.
The heart of the ballet lies in three long and exhausting pas de deux, which chart three stages of the couple’s relationship, and while all three were mighty impressive in terms of dancing (not least by dint of the Herculean demands made on Armand in terms of partnering and lifting) it was the third which hit home emotionally.
A mention for Béatrice Martel as Margurite’s maid Nanine, an object lesson to many others on the stage in sensitive characterisation, and also for Opéra veteran Michaël Denard, an étoile of distinction in his day, who portrayed Armand’s father with dignity and great subtlety. Neumeier goes much further than Ashton in his ‘Traviata’ ballet for Fonteyn and Nureyev, Marguerite and Armand, in which the father makes a brief but telling appearance; here the interchange between the lovesick courtesan and the father desperate to save his unmarried daughter’s name by asking Marguerite to leave Armand, is spelled out at length. Denard progressed from being cold to and faintly disgusted by this wanton woman to showing his admiration for and thanks to her with admirable clarity. Superb.
All praise too to the orchestra under Michaël Schmidtsdorff’s sensitive baton and the two hard-working pianists, who all delivered Chopin’s delightful music with such engagement and precision.