The Lady of the Camellias
Fryderyk Chopin / John Neumeier
Ballet by John Neumeier in three acts with a prologue based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas (fils)
A copy of La Dame aux Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils, was among the objects displayed at the Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910 exhibition held at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The exhibition was designed by the opera director Robert Carsen. In the rooms lined with expensive fabrics – such as had lined courtesans’ boudoirs – one could admire, for instance, a ‘pleasure chair’ constructed for Queen Victoria’s son, or Henri Gervex’s naked Rolla spread out on her bed. Tarts, demi mondaines, grandes horizontals of the second half of the nineteenth century inspired the artists – they embodied the dream of freedom, as well as its price. As Kees van Dongen said, ‘they knew life in all its expressions’. The Lady of the Camellias is one of John Neumeier’s most famous ballets. In his ballet story he uses the Chinese box narrative structure – the protagonists Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval meet in the opera during a performance of Manon Lescaut. It is a double wink to the audience: Manon Lescaut also tells the story of a courtesan, and the opera house itself, as a venue, is an important point on the prostitution map of various registers – courtesans at the height of their careers displayed their new dresses and jewels there, meanwhile ballet was called at the time ‘an exposition of girls for sale’. Neumeier’s choreography shows the full scale of passion – in Chopin’s music we find both the sadness resulting from his illness, as well as the joy and frivolity of the Parisian society he frequented – the Paris where ‘pleasures pass us by, calling out to us’.
Introductory meetings (in Polish) are held in the Main Foyer 45 minutes before every performance.
Polish National Ballet
Orchestra of the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera
The ballet takes place during an auction. The story evolves as a series of memories recalled from various points of view — Armand’s, his Father’s and Marguerite’s.
(All actions during the auction are indicated in bold)
Marguerite Gautier, once the most desirable courtesan in Paris, has died. The complete furnishings of her luxurious apartment are to be disposed of by auction. Carrying Marguerite’s diary, Nanina, her loyal servant, bids the place farewell. Among those inspecting the items is Monsieur Duval, whose son Armand rushes in frantically. Overcome by memories, he collapses.
As Monsieur Duval comforts him, Armand tells his story.
It begins in the Théâtre des Variétés, during a performance of the ballet Manon Lescaut, in which the famous rococo courtesan deceives Des Grieux with numerous admirers. In the audience, Marguerite Gautier is disgusted by Manon’s frivolous in fidelity. Armand Duval, who has long admired Marguerite, is introduced to her by Gaston Rieux. Marguerite makes fun of Armand’s awkward sincerity. As he follows the ballet, Armand fears that his own future may reflect Des Grieux’s sorrowful fate.
After the performance Marguerite invites Armand to her apartment along with his friend Gaston, the courtesan Prudence and her own escort, the wearisome young Count N. Annoyed by the jealous Count, Marguerite suffers a coughing attack. Armand follows her to her bedroom, offers his assistance, then confesses his love. Marguerite is moved by his sincere passion. However, aware of her fatal illness and needing the comfort of luxury, she insists that their affair must remain secret.
While Marguerite continues to lead her hectic life, hastening from one ball to another, from one admirer to the next, from an old Duke to the young Count, Armand is always there — waiting. When Marguerite departs for the idyllic country house the Duke had put at her disposal — he follows her.
Marguerite’s summer straw hat prompts Armand to resume his story…
Surrounded by revealing friends and ardent admirers, Marguerite continues her turbulent life in the country.
With the inevitable confrontation between Armand and the Duke, Marguerite’s moment of decision arrives. She publicly acknowledges her love for Armand. Armand and Marguerite are alone at last.
Armand’s father recalls with regret his part in the story.
Ashamed that his son is living with a prostitute, Monsieur Duval visits Marguerite in the country. He insists that her relationship with his son will ruin Armand. Shocked, Marguerite protests, but the image of Manon and her admirers appear in memory, a mirror image of her own past, confirming the truth of Monsieur Duval’s accusations. He demands that she leave Armand. Out of deep and sincere love Marguerite complies.
Armand tells his father how he found the house deserted.
He waited in vain until Nanina brought him a letter saying that Marguerite had returned to her former life. Unbelieving, Armand runs to Paris, finding Marguerite in the arms of the Duke.
Armand explains to his father how they met later on the Champs-Élysées.
Marguerite was accompanied by the beautiful young courtesan Olympia. To have his revenge on the woman who had so deeply wounded him, Armand flirts with and seduces Olympia.
Deathly ill, Marguerite visits Armand, begging him not to hurt her by flaunting his affair with Olympia. Their passion ignites once more. Falling asleep, a vision of her alter ego Manon beckons Marguerite back to her former life. Waking, she remembers her promise to his father and silently leaves Armand for the second time At a grand ball, Armand publicly humiliates Marguerite by handing her money as payment for past services. Marguerite collapses.
Armand has reached the end of his story. He will never see Marguerite again. Deeply moved, his father leaves, as Nanina returns and gives Armand Marguerite’s diary.
Reading, Armand seems to accompany Marguerite on her last visit to the theatre. Again, she views a scene from the ballet Manon Lescaut. This time it is one in which Manon, impoverished like herself, dies in the arms of her faithful lover Des Grieux.
Ill and despairing, Marguerite leaves the theatre, but the characters from the ballet follow her into a feverish dream. As the phantom lovers blend with her own memories, her identification with Manon seems complete. Deserted and longing to see Armand again, Marguerite confides her last thoughts to the diary, which she gives to Nanina for Armand.
Marguerite dies alone.
Armand silently closes her diary.
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