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John Neumeier: Lady of the Camellias


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 6 August 2006 —John Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias, a big, narrative ballet set to original concert music by Chopin is based on the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas junior, written in 1848. The story is based on true events in the author's life when, at the age of 20, he fell in love with Marie Duplessis who was to die at the age of 23. 

Like the George Cukor film starring Greta Garbo and Verdi's La Traviata with Maria Callas before it, it is a masterpiece. And danced as it was by the Paris Opera Ballet, who have worked with Neumeier for many years and understand each nuance of his choreographic language, with Agnès Letestu, lyrical and expressive, and Neumeier's soloist, Jiri Bubenicek in the leading roles, it was unforgettable. Created for Stuttgart Ballet in 1978 and restaged by Neumeier's Hamburg company two years later, the question is possibly why the French company have had to wait over a quarter of a century to make this sumptuous and elegant work their own. It could have been created for them.

John Neumeier: Lady of the Camellias
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The ballet opens as if upon a scene of a play, with a flashback to where the entire contents of a luxurious apartment have been put on auction. Armand Duval arrives, and, overcome by his memories, begins to tell his story.

Marguerite Gautier is a famous Parisian courtesan who falls in love with Duval when they are introduced at a performance of Manon Lescaut. Stricken by tuberculosis, she goes to live in the country where her young lover comes to join her. But their idyll is broken by his father who comes to plead with Marguerite that her liaison with his son is compromising the family honour. He demands she leave Armand to protect his daughter's reputation. Suffocated by the society she lives in as much as by a physical disease, Marguerite, heartbroken, returns to her old way of life. Armand, believing himself spurned, only learns the depth of her devotion when reading her diary after she has died in poverty, rejected by her former friends.

The choreography, rich and inventive, is outstanding from beginning to end while the dramatic intensity is sustained in a whole series of sublime pas de deux.  Whether it be in the slightest movement of the hand or the merest glance, Neumeier, choreographer poet, has exactly the right gesture for every shade of emotion.

Greater depth to the ballet has also been given by including the tale of Manon Lescaut and des Grieux, both brilliantly interpreted by Isabelle Ciaravola and José Martinez. They are seen as mirror images of the central pair, underlining the parallel between their respective destinies, a detail which is present in the novel. Moreover, certain characters develop psychologically as the ballet progresses, the initial scorn of Duval's father, remarkably interpreted by Jean-Guillaume Bart, turning to compassion for Marguerite as he learns of her sacrifice.

John Neumeier: Lady of the Camellias
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sébastien Mathé

Marguerite, together with Odette/ Odile, is one of Agnès Letestu's greatest roles. The ballerina, chosen to dance the premiere by Neumeier and whose photograph graces the cover of the programme, spent a week in Hamburg rehearsing with Jiri Bubencek. The result was a magical partnership of two dancers who had never met before.  Refined, exquisitely beautiful and totally convincing, Letestu was overwhelming in the role while Bubencek, his youthful good looks masking his considerable maturity and experience made a moving Armand. They made a stunning couple.

And last of all, the sparse sets of Jurgen Rose only served to emphasise the beauty of his costumes and jewellery which was sublime, all designed and hand-made in the opera's workshop. Many of the dresses had been hand painted by the costume department. No two were alike.

This was the kind of evening, deeply moving, romantic and tragic, which leaves an audience overwhelmed but invigorated and floating on air. A long time after.


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe and is the dance editor for

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