Lady of the Camellias Might Actually Be a Keeper

May 26, 2010

Almost every spring ABT trots out a new full-length production, and more often than not, it’s an expensive failure. After all, what could hold up against Swan Lake, Giselle, and Romeo and Juliet?  I think John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias just might do the trick. 

Neumeier takes you into the world of Marguerite and Armand gradually. In silence, and with house lights still up, the story begins. Immediately the elegance of the setting and costumes sets the tone. Men in top hats inspect items at a 19th-century auction, and workers roll up carpets. The super elegance both draws you in and carries a sense of danger—as if underneath that patina of luxury, there is plenty of trouble. And there is, in the form of one top-hatted gentleman who lurks in the shadows just outside the proscenium. Turns out he’s the father, the one who wrecks the juicy love affair, turning a heady romance into tragedy. Roman Zhurbin was riveting over there in that corner. He was the dark side of elegance, the side that thinks it’s too good for a prostitute.

The deliberate pacing, the lilting Chopin music—much of it played only on piano—and the painterly tableaux give much pleasure as the story hurtles toward its lonely ending. And the way Neumeier plays with space and timing—key plot events happen outside the proscenium or in silence—keeps you alert. Plus the partnering is exquisite, although I wish the big swirling lifts that end up with one person splayed on the floor were used a bit more sparingly.

This is a lavish, voluptuous tragedy of a ballet, and Julie Kent illuminated the story beautifully. Her dramatic descent from radiant courtesan to sickly, broken-hearted woman is stunning—and moving. Roberto Bolle starts out boyish, lacking in depth, and becomes more obsessed along the way.

There’s always something to watch in this ballet that’s not center stage. While a little play is going on upstage center, the drama of the characters watching provide counterpoint. Or vice versa. That little play (of Manon and Des Grieux) echoes the plunging fates of Marguerite and Armand. Gillian Murphy as the mirror image of Marguerite is so giving in her upper body—both as a sensual and an empathetic being. Such a contrast—as it should be—to the way she plays Gamzatti!

I just hope the company gets more rehearsals with the voluminous dresses, ’cause there were a couple times I worried that the dress would be held but the girl would be dropped.

And I think that once audience members begin to know the story as well as they know the plot of Swan Lake, they’ll want to see Lady of the Camellias again and again.


Photo of Julie Kent by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT