“The Lady of the Camellias,” currently being performed by the Paris Opera Ballet through January 3, is no stranger to international audiences and is the most widely-known narrative ballet by John Neumeier. Yet, the company has breathed new life into this contemporary classic that was first performed in 1978 by the Stuttgart Ballet. Awash with lush plays of color that dialogue across the costumes and sets designed by Jürgen Rose and Rolf Warter’s lighting, the 19th century color palette progresses intelligently alongside the narrative arc of the ballet. Moreover, a multilayered performance on December 12 by étoiles Léonore Baulac and Mathieu Ganio as the lovers Margeurite and Armand, as well as an accomplished supporting cast (special mentions for Muriel Zusperreguy in the role of Prudence and Héloïse Bourdon as Olympia), bestowed a transcendent quality upon the dancing, with its lyricism that ventures into demanding and idiosyncratic forms of partnering.
Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Alexandre Dumas Fils, “The Lady of the Camellias” (often known in English simply as Camille) was published in 1848 and recounts the author’s own tragic love affair with French courtesan, Marie Duplessis. In the novel, Marie and Alexandre become Marguerite and Armand. The father of the latter disapproves of the couple’s illicit relationship and pleas with Marguerite to give it up in order to save his son from scandal. Unbeknownst to Armand’s father, the couple are truly in love and Marguerite only agrees to leave for the benefit of Armand’s reputation. Believing that Marguerite has left him for another man, an embittered Armand taunts and humiliates his former lover. Not long after, the courtesan dies alone from consumption in abject misery. Only Marguerite’s journal provides a testament of her true feelings, made known posthumously to a tortured Armand, who reflects on their relationship through a series of flashbacks.
Dumas’ novel has left an indelible mark on the performing arts, from theatre to opera (incidentally, the Paris Opera has also programmed La Traviata throughout the month of December, Verdi’s take on the same story). While Marguerite and Armand (1963) by Frederick Ashton predates Neumeier’s “The Lady of the Camellias,” only the German-based choreographer has ventured to create a faithful literary rendering of the same tale. Drawing on the novel’s use of a theatre setting to create a mirror for the real-life action, Neumeier presents a ballet within a ballet, the boundaries between the two becoming increasingly thinner as Marguerite’s inevitable death encroaches.
Merging past, present, and fictional dream sequences, “The Lady of the Camellias” demands committed acting, without which, the ballet risks sinking to the level of a cheap unbearable melodrama. Fortunately for audiences, Baulac and Ganio possess a rare chemistry, both as partners and as individual dancers. Their roles evolve considerably throughout the course of the ballet: the character of Marguerite transitions from a public coquettish persona to a vulnerable individual, experiencing love, self-sacrifice, and a miserable illness while alone and delirious. Ganio as Armand must navigate multiple timelines, from the grieving Armand of the present, to the impetuous lover of the past who experiences infatuation then jealousy. While Ganio’s reprise of the role is accomplished, it is Baulac’s nuanced interpretation that makes the ballet remarkable. Her gentle vulnerability, even while flirting (contrasted with the femme fatale approach advocated by some performers of the role) allows for audiences to appreciate a hint of the character’s inner nature from the outset and is additionally harnessed to generate intelligent musical responses to Chopin’s piano scores. It is a convincing choice that allows us to understand Marguerite’s appeal to numerous suitors. Her Marguerite will surely be remembered as one of the greats, although entirely unique from the more hardened courtesans of Aurélie Dupont and Agnès Letestu’s celebrated performances in the role.