The Lady of the Camellias
Seen in New York
Live broadcast from the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
6 December 2015
Dance on film is a tricky thing. On the one hand it provides a unique opportunity to see dance up close and to see foreign repertoires and artists; on the other, it lacks the intangible live chemistry that can electrify an opera house. The camera is a third party translator, not always succeeding in capturing the artists’ efforts. But, whether on film or in person, what matters most is who is dancing, and what.
The Bolshoi Ballet’s cinematic season, which has already screened Giselle and Jewels in North America this year, continued with John Neumeier’s The Lady of the Camellias, screened live from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
Originally created on Marcia Haydee and Egon Madsen, the ballet has had many interpreters since its inception in 1978, and the live screening featured Svetlana Zakharova and Edvin Revazov in the lead roles of Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval.
Zakharova’s early glances at Duval are that of a calculating, callous courtesan. It is clear that Marguerite is experienced, her heart not touched often. It is hard to believe she will fall for, rather than play, the guileless Armand.
And what a sweet Armand she has. A guest artist with the Bolshoi and a principal at Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet (his casting in this prominent screening begs the question when the Bolshoi will exhibit to the outside world a homegrown talent in this role), Revazov is an accomplished, passionate and naive Armand. His normally polished technique takes secondary priority to his emotions – which, for this ballet, is perfectly appropriate. His jagged execution makes him that much more ravenous, that much more eager. His eyes border on the puppy dog, but his face is capable of a range of nuanced, ever-changing emotions. If only Zakharova had matched him here.
Although she gushes out of her decolletage and gives herself whiplash with every consumptive cough, Zakharova can be a touch chilly. Her efforts were visible (perhaps too visible), and sometimes lacked the raw urgency the role calls for. Even the way her arms came down in the steamy pas de deuxs was too pretty, too swan-like, too posed for a ballet with such vitality. Where really she excelled was actually not always with Armand but in a scene with his father (played by a stony Andrei Merkuriev), where she is persuaded to commit the ultimate sacrifice -to give up Armand – resulting in a complicated cocktail of determination, frustration, mourning and grand love. Still, the scene shows that Neumeier’s deft choreographic management of the human psyche is tough to top.
In danger of stealing the show were Anna Tikhomirova and Semyon Chudin as Manon and Des Grieux, respectively. Alexandre Dumas’ novel includes Manon as a foreshadowing of Marguerite’s doomed destiny, and, ever interested in the story-within-a-story, Neumeier runs with it. Tikhomirova – who goes through three costumes in Lady, each one increasingly tattered – begins as a snarky Manon and ends up breaking your heart, her eyes and face more worn as the ballet plods along. She would be, one imagines, a startling Marguerite. Chudin is elegant, as is Neumeier’s choreography for him which ever so lightly echoes that of Macmillan’s.
Despite inherent distance created by a filmed rather than a live performance, Neumeier still holds up as the man who has best carried Macmillan’s torch in the realm of psychological story ballets and gauzy, romantic pas de deux. One loses track of the lifts. With their dizzying sweep and fluid spirals, Neumeier’s pas de deuxs are love in flight, romance personified. The score, samplings of melancholic Chopin (much of it his most famous nocturnes, sonatas, etc.) only heightens the emotions.
After seeing the three acts on film, including all intermissions (the camera filmed lobbies, the orchestra and included a few interviews with dancers), Ashton’s version of Dumas’ tale, Marguerite and Armand, seems decidedly favorable, if only for its brevity. Both are seminal works of 20th century choreography, both tear-jerkingly romantic, and as such, either made or hampered by its performers. Neumeier’s story-within-a-story, while significantly helped here by the talents of Tikhomirova and Chudin, seems a little laborious on film, whereas live it has never posed a problem to this viewer.
At a live screening, flawless cinematography can’t be expected. While excellent most of the time, many of the close-ups were too close, amputating the choreography and losing the perspective of the stage as a whole. Neumeier’s work, like much of his oeuvre, is heavily influenced by cinema, and Camellias is more cinematic in person than it is on the big screen.
Still, it shows The Bolshoi taking a big bite out of the emotive, psychological repertoire which has peppered western opera houses since the mid-century years. It will be interesting to see how its dancers grow into it.