Is this ballet for you?
Go If: You like soapy dramas complete with beautiful costumes and designs. One for opera lovers too, even if Verdi is not directly involved.
Skip If: You have seen both Cranko’s Onegin and MacMillan’s Manon and remain unmoved.
This is more a case for dream companies: both Hamburg Ballet and Stuttgart Ballet have blood ties to Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias and we would love to see this work staged by either.
The Lady of the Camellias is Alexandre Dumas Fils‘s most famous work and it has been adapted for the stage in various forms. As the illegitimate child of Alexandre Dumas Sr. and Catherine Labay, a dressmaker, Dumas Fils grew up away from his mother and went through bullying in school. He translated the suffering from these experiences and the observations on people he had encountered along the way into his novels. In Camellias, Dumas was inspired by Marie Duplessis (a young courtesan with whom he had fallen in love and who died at age 23) to create the main character Marguerite Gautier. The novel was first published in 1848 and was later adapted into a successful play, Camille (1852). Soon thereafter, Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi used Dumas’s material as a basis for the libretto of La Traviata (1853), where Marguerite Gautier was renamed Violetta Valery. The story has also been adapted for the cinema a number of times, most notably in a 1937 movie with Greta Garbo.
Marguerite & Armand (Sir Frederick Ashton)
Marguerite & Armand was created to showcase the megawatt partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Ashton had long thought Marguerite would be a suitable role for his muse. He had seen a stage performance of The Lady of the Camellias with Vivian Leigh as Marguerite in 1961, and was also heavily influenced by two films: Camille, with Greta Garbo and Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais, which centers around a meeting between a man and a woman told in surreal, dreamlike passages.
This one-act ballet is presented as a condensed version of the novel, starting with Marguerite on her deathbed, and is narrated through flashbacks of various crucial events: from the time the lovers first meet to the confrontation between Marguerite and Armand’s father, culminating in Armand arriving to reunite with his beloved just before she draws her last breath.
Marguerite & Armand premiered on 12 March 1963. The piece was very well received, with Fonteyn and Nureyev taking 21 curtain calls. Ashton tailored the ballet to their unique talents and audiences and critics who saw Fonteyn and Nureyev perform commented on how the experience felt “almost voyeuristic” and how Fonteyn was able to attain new heights of dramatic intensity.
The work was further popularised in a filmed version. It has long been said that Ashton didn’t want Marguerite & Armand to be revived with another cast, but – not unlike his Sylvia – the ballet was eventually brought back: Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche led the Royal Ballet’s revival in 2000. Tamara Rojo debuted as Marguerite in 2005 and Zenaida Yanowsky in 2011. The piece is also scheduled to be performed at La Scala next year with a double debut by Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle.
Lady of the Camellias (John Neumeier)
American choreographer John Neumeier began his career as a protégé of John Cranko at Stuttgart Ballet. He eventually moved to Hamburg, where he was made Artistic Director and Chief choreographer of the local ballet company. There he developed a reputation for creating modern narrative dance works, both new and revised versions of classic story ballets .
His 1979 Lady of the Camellias was originally created for Marcia Haydée at Stuttgart Ballet. The ballet is well known for its original dramatic structure. It opens with an auction and audiences soon understand that the objects being sold off belonged to Marguerite. Armand enters and flashbacks are used from then onwards to narrate the story.
Neumeier also introduces the characters of Manon and Des Grieux, a feature he fleshed out of Dumas’s novel. Marguerite and Armand meet at a performance of the ballet Manon Lescaut, and the characters of Manon and Des Grieux later appear as mirror images of the main couple, highlighting events that are common to both stories. In addition to Stuttgart and Hamburg Ballets, Lady of the Camellias is currently part of the repertory of American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet, Bavarian State Ballet, Ballet del Teatro alla Scala and Dresden Semperoper.
Armand Duval attends a performance of Manon Lescaut at the Théâtre des Variétés. There, he is introduced to Marguerite Gautier, the most beautiful courtesan in Paris. Armand, who has been admiring Marguerite from afar, fears he has fallen in love and that he will encounter the same tragic fate as Des Grieux’s in the “ballet within the ballet”.
After the performance, Marguerite invites a group of friends to her apartment. She extends the invitation to Armand, as a way to annoy her own escort Count N. She is overcome by a coughing fit and Armand offers his help, confessing his love. Marguerite, who is aware of her illness and lifestyle, keeps him away, but Armand does not let himself be discouraged.
Marguerite is a guest at the home of a Duke. Armand follows her there, and is inevitably confronted by the Duke. Marguerite defends Armand. She finally acknowledges her love for him and they are left alone.
Monsieur Duval, having heard about his son Armand’s liaison with a prostitute, pays a visit to Marguerite. He insists the relationship will damage Armand’s reputation and he wants her to end it. Marguerite initially protests, but the image of Manon appears in her mind, and she accepts Monsieur Duval’s demands.
Armand receives a letter which states that Marguerite has returned to her former life. Armand rejects it, and returns to Paris only to find Marguerite in the arms of the Duke.
At a ball on the Champs-Élysées, Marguerite is accompanied by another beautiful courtesan named Olympia. Seeking revenge, Armand flirts and seduces Olympia. Marguerite is now gravely ill, she visits Armand and begs him not to flaunt his affair with Olympia. Their passion is reignited. Marguerite falls asleep and dreams of Manon. Waking up she remembers the promise she had made to Armand’s father and leaves for the second time.
The action goes back to the present. Marguerite’s servant Nanina gives Armand her mistress’s diary and leaves. He reads and relives Marguerite’s last visit to the theatre: she is watching the final scene of Manon Lescaut, where Manon dies in Des Grieux’s arms. Feeling ill, Marguerite leaves the theatre but the ballet’s characters follow her into a feverish dream. Longing for Armand, she records her last thoughts in her diary, which she entrusts to Nanina for Armand after her death. Marguerite dies alone. The ballet ends with Armand silently closing the diary.
Marguerite and Armand
- Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev: an extract
- Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev: in the country
- Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche: prologue
- Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche: death scene
Lady of the Camellias
- Marcia Haydée and Ivan Liska in Hamburg Ballet’s production
- Sue Jin Kang and Friedemann Vogel in the Act I (Blue) Pas de Deux
- Agnès Letestu and Stéphane Buillon in the Act 2 (White) Pas de Deux
- Marijn Rademaker dances Armand’s solo from Act 2
- Sue Jin Kang and Marijn Rademaker in the Act 3 (Black) Pas de Deux
- Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent in the Act 3 (Black Pas de Deux)
- Jirí Jelinek as Armand, Evan McKie as Des Grieux & Anna Osadcenko as Manon
- Dorothée Gilbert as Prudence and Karl Paquette as Gaston
For Marguerite and Armand Ashton used Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, which interestingly shared a connection to Dumas’s own novel: the Hungarian composer had had an affair with Marie Duplessis, the real-life Marguerite.
This sonata, one of Liszt’s most renowned piano works, was composed between 1852-53 and is dedicated to Robert Schumann. Humphrey Searle arranged it for Ashton’s ballet, using an original transcription. The arrangement was reworked by Dudley Simpson in 1977 when Marguerite and Armand was revived for a series of performances at the London Coliseum.
Neumeier set his Lady of the Camellias to Chopin, using the complete 2nd Piano Concerto plus the Romanze from the 1st Piano Concerto along with other individual piano pieces: the final “Black Pas de Deux” is set to Ballade No. 1 and the Largo movement from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor is the “love theme” for Marguerite and Armand.
An essential iPod/Spotify playlist for Lady of the Camellias should contain:
- Piano Sonata in B minor (German: Klaviersonate h-Moll), S.178
- 2nd movement from Concerto no. 1 for Piano and Orchestra in E minor, Op. 11
- Concerto no. 2 for Piano and Orchestra in F minor, Op. 21
- Largo from Piano Sonata in B minor, Op. 58
- Ballade no. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
- Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72
For the full music listing in Neumeier’s ballet see Music Web International
Marguerite and Armand
Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Music: Franz Liszt, arranged by Dudley Simpson
Designs and Costumes: Cecil Beaton
Lighting: John B. Read
Original Cast: Margot Fonteyn as Marguerite and Rudolf Nureyev as Armand
Premiere: 12 March 1963, Royal Opera House, London
Lady of the Camellias
Choreography: John Neumeier
Libretto: John Neumeier after the novel by Alexandre Dumas Fils
Music: Frédéric Chopin
Designs and Costumes: Jürgen Rose
Original Cast: Marcia Haydée as Marguerite Gautier, Egon Madsen as Armand Duval, Birgit Keil as Manon Lescaut, Richard Cragun as Des Grieux and Reid Anderson as Monsieur Duval.
Premiere: 4 November 1978, Stuttgart.
Sources and Further Information
- Hamburg Ballett on Lady of the Camellias
- Hamburg Ballett on John Neumeier
- Marguerite and Armand by Jane Simpson. Ballet.co Contexts, December 2002
- Margot, Rudi, …Marguerite and Armand by Karen Spencer. Ballet.co Magazine, February 2000
- Nureyev dancing Armand – Notes for Marguerite and Armand. Nureyev Foundation Official Website
- Wikipedia: Alexandre Dumas Fils
- Wikipedia: Marguerite and Armand
- Wikipedia: The Lady of the Camellias
- American Ballet Theatre on Lady of the Camellias
- American Ballet Theatre Mounts John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias: review by Deborah Jowitt. Village Voice, June 2010.
- John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias by Patricia Boccadoro. Review, Paris Opera Ballet. Culture Kiosque, August 2006.
- Hard Work All Around by Robert Greskovic. Review, American Ballet Theatre, Wall Street Journal, June 2009.