The coming season will be one of transition for the Paris Opera Ballet. In addition to the departure next summer of longtime artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre, three of the company’s foremost étoiles (Agnès Letestu, Isabelle Ciaravola and Nicolas Le Riche) will bid farewell to the stage between October and July. That the Paris Opera still enforces a mandatory retirement age of 42 has never seemed so arbitrary: as an outstanding generation prepares to leave, the next one, haphazardly cast and nurtured in recent years, has yet to prove it can fill the gap.
The first production of the season, La Dame aux camélias, is in keeping with this sombre tone. John Neumeier’s three-act ballet only made its way to Paris in 2006, nearly 30 years after its creation in Stuttgart, but its languid vision of Romanticism is a perfect fit with French taste. At its heart is the old dichotomy between the angel and the whore, as Marguerite Gautier, a terminally ill courtesan, turns martyr to protect an idealistic young man. It also has an endless supply of Chopin, and impossibly sophisticated sets and costumes by Jürgen Rose, who trots out yards and yards of rustling silk and tulle as the characters waltz (or cough, in Marguerite’s case) their way through nights at the theatre, an idyllic rural interlude and countless balls.
Like much Romantic fare, La Dame aux camélias, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, veers between the sublime and the overblown. Act One is finely drawn and sees Neumeier at his theatrical best, with smooth, fast-paced storytelling. Concision is not his strong suit, however, and by the end of Act Three, you may find yourself actively willing consumption to run its course. The awkward partnering that Neumeier favours and the repetitive corps work undermine the ballet’s real virtues; the lyrical beauty of some scenes, the minute character details woven into the choreography should by rights combine to let the story soar, yet this Dame is often less than the sum of its parts.
A faint air of ennui ran through the cast on opening night. The POB’s current succession issues were evident among the supporting cast: several soloists have clearly outgrown roles they started dancing in 2006, among them Nolwenn Daniel (Prudence) and étoile Myriam Ould-Braham, inexcusably stuck in the minor role of Olympia. This is a character for promising young dancers to hone their stagecraft on, and yet none has been cast.
But the ballet belonged to Letestu, who will be the first étoile to go this season, at the end of the run. Singled out by Rudolf Nureyev shortly before his death, she has never taken her title lightly but has been a rock for the company over the years. As Marguerite, one of her best roles, she gave herself over entirely to the moment, relishing every line, radiant in her freedom. She will be much missed.