John Neumeier’s Lady of The Camellias, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, created for Stuttgart Ballet in 1978 and revised later for Hamburg Ballet, has been taken into many companies’ repertoire. Although the novel is about the love story of a courtesan Marguerite and young student Armand in Paris demi-monde society, it was introduced into Paris Opera Ballet quite late – in 2006. Since then, this has become a very popular piece in Paris, and the tickets for all 5 performances on their Japan Tour sold out quickly.

Laetitia Pujol and Mathieu Ganio © Julien Benhamou
Laetitia Pujol and Mathieu Ganio
© Julien Benhamou

Neumeier’s interpretation is fairly loyal to the original story, beginning with the auction scene of the late Marguerite’s apartment and closing with her dying alone in poverty. Armand is reading the diary she left behind after her death, and the story is depicted as a reminiscence by him. Neumeier’s intention was to make reference to Manon Lescaut, who appeared in the original novel, by inserting a stage performance of that story. The tragic love of Manon and Des Grieux haunts Marguerite’s soul, and the pair appear as a vision in her dreams, mirroring her feelings of fear and guilt, but then they become close friends to her.

Three lavish and elaborate pas de deux in each act are the core of this ballet, and are popular as gala pieces. Each of them tell where the status of their love is eloquently with many lifts and low floor sequences. Marguerite is often hoisted in the air high, at the same time expressing her many emotions – the beginning of love, pure bliss, the presentiment of parting, and the last fire of passion – in detail. It is such a demanding role for the male dancer, who must have strong partnering skills while displaying that their movements and emotions are truly contributing to the story.

Lady of the Camellias © Julien Benhamou
Lady of the Camellias
© Julien Benhamou

Mathieu Ganio seemed to be an ideal Armand, with his radiant and youthful features, clean footwork and good partnering. He embodied the vulnerability and passionate devotion of this character, throwing himself on the floor and ardently watching Marguerite with starry eyes. However, he was too sweet a character to portray the complicated love-turned-to-hate feelings towards her, and in the black pas de deux he could not show his anger and frustration turned into flame. He was hesitating to humiliate her by paying money to treat her as a prostitute. But at the end of the ballet, just standing still on stage reading her journal with sorrow, he was a touching figure.

This was Isabelle Ciaravola’s last performance as an Étoile of Paris Opera Ballet, and this performance closing the pages of her career was such a gracious one. Appearing on stage as the queen of society but feeling ashamed of being a courtesan and taken ill, she dances every detail of this woman delicately and with dignity – her fears, her hesitation. Ciaravola expressed her emotions flowing with the music and had the courage to expose herself without fearing looking ugly – not just a tragic heroine in a melodrama but a true mortal human being. A beautiful final performance to this incredible actress ballerina.

Isabelle Ciaravola © Julien Benhamou
Isabelle Ciaravola
© Julien Benhamou

Eve Grinsztajn as Manon and Christophe Duquenne as Des Grieux also had marvelous characterization. Notably Grinsztajn, at first a threatening figure to Marguerite who transforms into her imaginary companion, added visions of lust, purification and death so brilliantly.   

This ballet features the piano solos and concertos of Chopin, whose music fits marvelously in recreating the Parisian culture of that age. Also the ensemble, often working like scenery to illustrate the decadent society, were glamorous and represented the vanity and materialism of that era, quite different from Hamburg Ballet and Stuttgart Ballet’s more decent atmosphere, but anyway this story is about Paris, and no other company can display Paris more than Paris Opera Ballet to be sure. The pianos by Emmanuel Strosser and Frederic Vaysse-Knitter were an essential factor in this ballet and uplifted the quality of the performance further, with the orchestra conducted by James Tuggle, music director of Stuttgart Ballet.