John Neumeier’s The Lady of the Camellias still thrills at forty

Hamburg Ballet at the Hamburg Opera House
November 10, 2018

David Mead

It has just celebrated its 40th birthday and is one of John Neumeier’s most sought after ballets. It’s easy to see why. Originally created for Stuttgart Ballet, where Neumeier had returned as guest choreographer, and with Marcia Haydée as Marguerite, The Lady of the Camellias (Die Kameliendame) is a ballet of dramatic intensity and passionate desire, full of rich and inventive choreography with some sublime pas de deux.

Set to a collage of Chopin compositions for solo piano or piano and orchestra, the story of the Marguerite and Armand is told in flashbacks after she has died and as her possessions are sold at auction. Neumeier cleverly sets their story against that of another couple from a century earlier: Manon Lescaut and her lover Des Grieux. It’s a link that also appears in Alexandre Dumas’ original tale of The Lady of the Camellias, published in 1848, which references Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel. The fact that there already was a 19th-century Manon ballet was certainly helpful, though, as it allows Neumeier to have his couple first meet at a performance of that very work.

Throughout Neumeier’s ballet, Manon appears to Marguerite as an ever-present dark shadow, a reminder of who she is, what she is, as well as a foretelling of what is to come. Is it one layer too many in what is already a long and character-packed story? Maybe, but it makes for a thoughtful comparison, and that adds rather than gets in the way of or detracts from the main narrative. But while Manon and Marguerite and Manon both die tragically, the former does so in the arms of her lover. Marguerite dies alone.

Anna Laudere and Edvin Revazov in The Lady of the CamelliasPhoto Kiran West
Anna Laudere and Edvin Revazov in The Lady of the Camellias
Photo Kiran West

The Lady of the Camellias is as much a ballet about being able to project character as steps. It needs dancers who have presence, who can project as much in moments of stillness as in soaring pas de deux. It particularly demands an experienced, mature and sophisticated dancer as Marguerite, and gets it in Anna Laudere.

She may exude an external steeliness and soulful intensity but one equally senses it comes with a soft inner core. Perhaps it’s what comes of being what she is, and of course of knowing that she is terminally ill, but Laudere’s Marguerite does not show the happiness of love. She is thoughtful, almost melancholy. While she often gives the impression of being in charge, she, and we, know that in fact she is always controlled by her patrons.

Laudere’s Marguerite is vulnerable and unsure in her relationships, including with Armand, but when her feelings do boil to the surface, they are hard to resist. In the Act II pas de deux, after she has renounced the relationship with her patron, her dancing screamed ecstatic joy and delight.

Act II provides lightness elsewhere too, with fun and games at a country house. The setting provides for some delightful interludes with dances that full of summer fizz and sparkle. The light choreography and sunshine can’t hide the gathering clouds of the forthcoming tragedy, however.

The joy of the Act II pas de deux makes Marguerite’s subsequent ‘conversation’ with Armand’s upright, steely, starchy father (Dario Franconi) all the more dramatic. It may not have the soaring lifts of the other pas de deux but if anything is even more potent, the tension and feelings laid bare for all to see. As he demands she puts his son aside and return from the country house to Paris and her former life, she realises her situation and that she is not in control of her own life, that her relationship with Armand is impossible, that happiness is to be denied.

Anna Laudere and Edvin Revazov in The Lady of the CamelliasPhoto Kiran West
Anna Laudere and Edvin Revazov in The Lady of the Camellias
Photo Kiran West

Edvin Revazov’s Armand is young and full of boyish naivety as he plunges headlong into love. He’s infatuated; like a besotted puppy as he follows Marguerite, swinging between being recklessly demonstrative and completely self-engrossed. He’s a dancer full of expressive looks and super body language. His creates beautiful lines; his height and long legs conspiring to make his angular extensions sharper, his dreamy arabesques longer. But Marguerite is what Marguerite is, as he finds out. The anguish of the couple in Act III is all too palpable but, somehow, they always seem like an unlikely couple in a relationship unlikely to last. His solo after reading she is leaving him is rage-filled and explosive, and determined on revenge.

The ballet offers plenty of strong dramatic roles elsewhere too. As Manon Lescaut, Mayo Arii was suitably ethereal and otherworldly. Christopher Evans was an attentive Des Grieux but the choreography provides little opportunity to show character. Georgina Hills was excellent as Marguerite’s maid, Nanina: loyal and devoted, but like most servants, observant and fully aware of what was going on. Even when simply being there, she showed great presence. Not easy. Matias Oberlin had lots of drive as Gaston and Patricia Friza was a feisty Prudence Duvernoy.

Master of German design, Jürgen Rose, sets everything in an appropriate 1840s setting. His sets are minimal but that for Marguerite’s apartment says everything you need to know about her and her tastes. His costumes are elaborate: mostly gorgeous dresses for the women and formal dress for the men.

Unusual, is the way Neumeier has the action spill into the arms that reach towards the auditorium at either side of the orchestra pit. Bringing the action closer makes it more involving, even if it does mean sometimes having to keep an eye on two places at once.

The ballet continues its hold right to its conclusion, although the end is stretched out rather, and is maybe over-melodramatic. But as Marguerite’s now lonely existence comes to an end, it’s impossible not to feel a shiver.

At three hours, it’s long; but it doesn’t feel long, which speaks volumes. The Lady of the Camellias really does make for a super evening.