Celebrated American choreographer John Neumeier created The Lady of the Camellias for the Stuttgart Ballet back in 1978, startling audiences with what has since been cited as a work of “unparalleled dramaturgical finesse”. Adapted from Alexandre Dumas' emotive novel La Dame aux Camélias, Neumeier’s version tells the story of a star-crossed love between the consumptive Parisian prostitute Marguerite Gautier and her hopelessly enamoured admirer, Armand Duval. Set to music by Frédéric Chopin, the Neumeier ballet is widely considered a pinnacle of the 20th century repertoire, and recently celebrated its 100th performance at the Staatsoper in Munich. Despite its long run, the Bayerisches Staatsballett continues to award the work poignancy and tragic resonance.

Edvin Revazov (Armand) and Anna Laudere (Marguerite) in <i>The Lady of the Camellias</i> © Wilfried Hösl
Edvin Revazov (Armand) and Anna Laudere (Marguerite) in The Lady of the Camellias
© Wilfried Hösl

Neumeier underscores the sad fates of his Marguerite and Armand, but also mirrors another doomed liaison: that between Manon Lescaut and her lover Des Grieux. The execution and interpretation of those leading roles demands technical perfection and emotional depth. On this night, two principal dancers from Neumeier's Hamburg Ballet were guesting in the lead roles. As Marguerite, Anna Laudere plays the perfect courtesan, ever coquettish, ever aware of who may be what and where. At first, she discounts Armand’s affection, and continues to welcome that of her other clients. Given that, Edvin Revazov’s Armand is the classic tortured Romantic, a figure terrifically agile, but forever naive. The dancer’s boyish appearance and bowl haircut made the role even more convincing, particularly in their heated love scenes. Those are, in fact, as gripping as they were athletic, all indications of Marguerite’s life-threatening pneumonia be damned.

D. Vyskubenko (des Grieux), K. Lind (Manon) and E. Revazov (Armand) in <i>The Lady of the Camellias</i> © Wilfried Hösl
D. Vyskubenko (des Grieux), K. Lind (Manon) and E. Revazov (Armand) in The Lady of the Camellias
© Wilfried Hösl

As Manon and Des Grieux, Kristine Lind and Djmitrii Vyskubenko also danced the principals’ counterparts with commensurate élan and precision. In the supporting role of the Armand’s devious father, Norbert Graf made a deceptively young-looking Monsieur Duval – the man torn apart by convention and the bourgeoise norm – but gave both polish and heft to his role as the disillusioned father.

That said, the performance overall was not without its foibles, some of them likely attributable to a staging feature that seemed almost like an accident waiting to happen. At 8 or 10 feet from the edge of the orchestra pit, namely, the downstage surface rose by some 18 inches. The first stumble over it, by a member of the corps, was apparently scripted to “humanise the setting", but among the very first configurations on stage, it was decidedly awkward. Later, even the prima ballerina was challenged by the disparate stage heights; after all, stepping up and down over the platform would pose a problem to anyone in track boots, much less to someone in pointe shoes moving at high speed. Less troubling was a mishap with a video projection of a forest glen that appeared a tad too late, having first opened the upstage curtains for Act 1 to a blank white wall.

At the start, there were also modest technical shortcomings among the corps dancers, who sometimes lacked the degree of precision in their timing, their legs elevating jaggedly, for example, distracting somewhat from the magic of the story. That said, the extension of the stage area to the left and right of the pit, right under the box seats closest to the stage, was highly effective.

Artists of the Bayerische Staatsballett in <i>The Lady of the Camellias</i> © Wilfried Hösl
Artists of the Bayerische Staatsballett in The Lady of the Camellias
© Wilfried Hösl

What’s more, the long list of Frédéric Chopin's lyrical interludes under conductor Michael Schmidtsdorff brought terrific musical virtuosity to the stage. The Largo from the b-minor sonata op. 58, for example, supported the most dramatic action and re-occurred at crucial moments in the ballet, giving one the sense of repeatedly coming home, and Dimitry Mayboroda’s solo piano accompaniment was consistently superb. Jürgen Rose’s stunning costumes made of a profusion of sumptuous, shimmering silks and varying colours made as much a feast for the eye as the piano did for the ear. Contrastingly, in the third act, Marguerite wears a simple, white diaphanous gown that perfectly underscores both the fragility of her condition and the fleeting nature of their lovers’ worldly pleasure.

Indeed, alone the pathos and passion of the lovers’ intertwining in Act 3 made a sequence well worth attending. Such poignancy is rare on any stage, and both dancers are to be commended for compelling performances. Armand’s drawing himself across the stage to his adored Marguerite’s feet might seem melodramatic; but here, it epitomised selfless devotion and an absolute obsession with the object of his desire. Laudere, too, took the innate beauty of compassion almost to a spiritual level, making a Marguerite-Mary Magdalen comparison perfectly viable. Here was the whore turned saint, the lost, through devotion, found. In short, Neumeier’s ballet combines a play of compelling solo performances with some of Chopin’s most beautiful music, and the fine Bayerisches Stasstorchester ably gave this age-old story a rewarding third dimension.

***11