By Walter Rutledge
American Ballet Theatre will present John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias during the their season at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center; the season began on Monday May 17 and runs through July 10. The ballet will receive its company premiere on Tuesday May 25 and is one of the highlights presented during the celebration of the company’s seventieth anniversary year. Lady of the Camellias will be presented for eight performances May 25th through May 27th and June 4th to June 7th.
The ballet is based on La Dame Aux Camelias the 1848 novel by French playwright and author Alexandre Dumas fil. Neumeier created the full-length ballet in 1978 for the Stuttgart Ballet. World-acclaimed dramatic ballerina Marcia Haydee danced the role of Marguerite (at the time she was also the Artistic Director of the Stuttgart Ballet following the untimely death of John Cranko) and Egon Madsen performed Armand. The ballet received its United States premiere by the Stuttgart Ballet at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C. on May 15, 1979.
Stuttgart Ballet- Marcia Haydee and Ivan Liska
Neumeier’s own company, the Hamburg Ballet, performed the ballet two years later. In 2006 the ballet had its Paris Opera Ballet premiere to rave reviews, in fact critics wondered why it took over a quarter of a century to be performed by a French dance company. In the upcoming American Ballet Theatre performances the roles of Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval Diana Vishneva with Marcelo Gomes, Julie Kent with Roberto Bolle, and Irina Dvorovenko with Cory Stearns.
The ballet features scenery and costumes by Jürgen Rose with original lighting designed by Neumeier, and reconstructed by Ralf Merkel. The work is set to the music of Chopin. An interesting note of trivia: Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin also known as author George Sands was the lover to both author Dumas fil, and composer Chopin and provided Dumas with the misspelling of Camelias in the novel and theatrical production titles (spelled with only one “L”).
Lady of the Camellias is the story of Marguerite Gautier, the most courted of all the courtesans of Paris. She falls in love with a younger man of modest means, Armand Duval, when they are introduced at a performance of Manon Lescaut. Stricken by tuberculosis, she leaves her decadent life in Paris and retreats to the country to live a serene existence with her young lover. Armand’s father who comes to the country to plead with Marguerite that her liaison with his son is compromising the family honor breaks their rapture. He demands she leave Armand to protect his daughter’s reputation. Suffocating by her life in Paris as well as from her fatal disease, a heartbroken Marguerite agrees to leave her lover. Her fate now sealed, Marguerite reluctantly returns to her old way of life. Armand, believing himself spurned seeks reciprocity by publicly rebuking and humiliating her. The misguided Armand only learns the depth of her devotion when reading her diary after she has died in poverty, rejected by her former friends.
The early life of young Dumas fil is as dramatic as his most celebrated novel/ play La Dame Aux Camelias- Lady of the Camelias. Dumas fil was born on July 27th, 1824 to Alexandre Dumas (pere) and a dressmaker Marie Labay. At the time the elder Dumas (pere) was only 22 years old and still a humble clerk. Dumas pere had begun to develop an interest in literature; and soon he went on to write The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man In The Iron Mask. These great novels recall an age of swashbuckling, chivalry, intrigue, and adventure.
Did you know Alexander Dumas who authored some of the world’s most celebrated literature was of Haitian decent? Dumas’ paternal grandparents were the Marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a French nobleman and Général commissaire in the Artillery in the colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, and Marie-Cesette Dumas, an Afro-Caribbean Creole of mixed French and African ancestry. Until recently his ancestry has not been hidden, to be more precise it was downplayed or overlooked.
In 1831, due in great part to his success, Dumas pere acknowledged the paternity of his son. The law, at that time, allowed the father to become the sole guardian; and he removed the boy permanently him his mother’s care. Dumas pere was determined to provide his son with the best education and enrolled him at the Institution Goubaux and later at the Collège Bourbon.
Throughout young Dumas fils’ life his illegitimacy would haunt him, and be the source of public ridicule by his peers. The boy became bitter towards his father for uprooting from his mother, the only parent he had known. Subsequently he performed poorly at school and left college before graduating.
Despite the elder Dumas’ literary success, which garnered him great personal fortune, his high living, and lavish lifestyle often put him in debt or left him broke; numerous liaisons produced at least three other illegitimate children. The younger Dumas had acquired a taste for his father’s lifestyle and quickly began to enjoy the trappings of Parisian nightlife. He was described a familiar figure in the gaming rooms, cafes and theaters of Paris, and as a man who never paid his tailor. The “prodigal son” decided he would clear his own mounting debts, and quickly took up the family business of literature.
His first literary attempts were less than successful. During 1844 Dumas moved to Saint-Germain-en-Laye to live with his father. One evening, while at the Theatre des Varietes, he met Marie Duplessis, a young courtesan. Soon after that first encounter they began an affair, which lasted for nine months.
The affair became the inspiration for the 1848 novel La Dame Aux Camelias. Dumas understood the difference between life and art. He understood that literature was not a reproduction of reality, but reality transposed and heightened.
The novel loosely referenced many people of notoriety and nobility in Parisian society, and was an immediate and scandalous success. At the urging of family friend and colleague Victor Hugo Dumas fil quickly converted the novel into a stage play. The production met with fierce opposition on moral grounds and was banded from opening.
On February 2, 1852 The Lady of the Camellias premiered at the Theatre du Vaudeville in Paris. The play was an instant success, establishing Dumas as the most popular French playwright for the second half of the nineteenth century. In attendance at the first performance was composer Giuseppe Verdi who immediately set about to put the story to music. His work became the 1853 opera La Traviata with the female protagonist “Marguerite Gautier” renamed “Violetta Valéry”.
Since the novels debut it has never been out of print. There have been over seventy editions, twenty-one since 1945. In the stage version, the role of the tragic “Marguerite Gautier” became one of the most coveted amongst actresses and included performances by Lillian Gish, Eleonora Duse, Margaret Anglin, Gabrielle Réjane, Tallulah Bankhead, Eva Le Gallienne, Isabelle Adjani, Cacilda Becker, and especially Sarah Bernhardt, who starred in Paris, London, and several Broadway revivals, plus a 1912 film. The role of “Marguerite Gautier” has been played on screen by Sarah Bernhardt, Clara Kimball Young, Theda Bara, Yvonne Printemps, Alla Nazimova, Micheline Presle, Francesca Bertini, and Isabelle Huppert. Probably the most notable screen adaptation is director George Cukor’s 1936 version Camille, starring screen legend Greta Garbo.
Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in Camille
In 1963 Sir Frederick Aston created Marguerite and Armand for Royal Ballet stars Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev. The ballet was set to Liszt’s B minor piano sonata. The work was an Ashton tour de force for the dance world’s most legendary partnership.
The Neumeier work guarantees to be both a sumptuous visual and artistic feast. We anticipate the return of Marguerite Gautier, one of the best-loved romantic heroines, in Alexandre Dumas fils tale of love and sacrifice- Lady of the Camellias. Tickets can be ordered online at www.abt.org or by calling 212 362 6000.
Photos 1) John Neumeier 2) Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle photo by Holger Badekow 3) Alexendre Dumas pere by Eug.Giruad 4) Marie Duplessis 5) Camille movie photo 6) Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev photo by Fredericka Davis