Roland Petit made his fascinating and allusive ballet about Proust for his Ballet de Marseille in 1974. Then, as now – when it has just entered the repertory of the Paris Opéra Ballet – Les Intermittences du coeur evokes, with a wonderful sensitivity to nuance in feeling and manners, the world of Proust’s sequence of novels.

Petit’s procedure has been, as it were, to interrupt the flow of roman-fleuve at certain crucial or vehement moments, and to show us scenes where dance incarnates a perfectly natural and, indeed, inevitable series of images that come from the emotional depths of the text. There is absolutely no idea of narrative coherence, as such, and certainly no attempt to realise anything more than the fleeting effects of passion, of love frustrated or sexuality perverted, which are the concern of Proust’s writing.

What Petit has so brilliantly and touchingly displayed are the heart’s vagaries as Proust shows them, and, most importantly, the heart’s deceptions. Les Intermittences du coeur – a phrase from Proust – defeats me as a matter for a translation into English that would capture its nuances. To see the ballet again, as I did last week at the Opéra, is to understand the meaning fully. Petit divides his dance action, comprising unrelated scenes that, nevertheless, resonate with each other, into two. The first part he calls “Some images of Proustian paradise”, and it evolves from an opening scene in Mme Verdurin’s salon with her “clan” by way of the violin’s “little phrase”, the jeunes filles en fleurs
at Balbec (and the not-so-innocent passion of Albertine and Andrée) and Swann’s passion for Odette to Albertine as prisoner.

All this is told in scenes that seem to take place in sunlight or almost luminous shade, feeling intense but not heavy-handed, until the extended closing duet when the young Proust’s passion for the sleeping Albertine occasions a scene of extraordinary and heightened passion, the young woman seeming ever out of the man’s emotional grasp. I think it one of the finest erotic duets of recent times, superlatively danced – every curving line and anguished step weighted with feeling – by Hervé Moreau and Eleanora Abbagnato.

The ballet’s second half is entitled “Some images from a Proustian hell”. Its chief concern is the underworld of the Baron de Charlus, of male and female whores, of Charlus’s passion for the ghastly Morel, and the opposing and quasi-angelic figure of the young soldier-nobleman, Robert de St Loup. The light-filled first half is here matched with the blackness of sadism and sexual opportunism, of wartime darkness and chance encounters, of the degeneration of personality and, inferentially, of society. The dance effects are often brutal, and given with superb authority by Manuel Legris as Charlus, by Stéphane
Bullion in a brilliant portrait of the devious Morel, and by Matthieu Ganio as St Loup. As a mirror-image of the duet between Albertine and the infatuated Proust, we are offered a duel of dark and light between Morel and St Loup, whose fate is to be death on his return to the Flanders trenches.

Like the first-act encounter, it is marked by that Proustian desire to shape a beloved into something “other”, and even so to misinterpret love itself as to destroy it. Petit’s world of taut, ever-watchful feelings is wonderfully Proustian, and the final débacle of society, the beau-monde shown as idiot marionettes surrounding Mme Verdurin-become-a-Guermantes, is extraordinary.

Proust, fascinated by Diaghilev’s early Ballets Russes seasons in Paris, would surely understand what Petit has done in his choreography. It must also be gratefully acknowledged that the Opéra has done Petit proud. The casting at last Thursday’s opening was splendid: to the principals I have already named, let me add Mathilde Froustey as an enchanting Gilberte, and Eve Grisztajn as Odette and Alexis Renaud as Swann in the wonderfully erotic scene with cattleyas; and Caroline Bance as a mysterious Andrée.

In beautiful new costuming by Luisa Spinatelli, and against elegantly evocative setting by Bernard Michel, the dramas of the novel find their life. And laurels must go to the Opéra’s orchestra. Petit chose to use a patchwork of music loved by Proust: St Saëns, Fauré, Franck, Debussy, Hahn, Beethoven. Under Koen Kessels, performances were very fine, with exceptional artistry shown by the orchestra’s own soloists. A memorable event. Vaut le voyage.

In repertory at the Paris Opera until end March

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