Is it something in the Moscow air? Staged by Paris Opera Ballet earlier this season, John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias looked as tired and out of breath as its consumptive heroine. But in the hands of the Bolshoi Ballet, which has just acquired the ballet as part of director Sergei Filin’s drive to bring in western classics, the Lady finds herself in rude good health.
Neumeier’s large body of work often functions more as contemplative theatre than dance: the steps matter less than the dancers’ ability to revel in moments of stillness and to mine simple motifs for dramatic impact. Few companies can sustain the effort over Lady’s three-hour Chopin smorgasbord – but the Bolshoi is one of them, and Neumeier made full use of its resources during his ballet’s short run.
Crucially, the company showed Lady of the Camellias to be a team effort. The focus may be on courtesan Marguerite Gautier and her youthful conquest, Armand Duval, but Neumeier weaves in a wealth of other characters. Manon and Des Grieux, the characters from Manon Lescaut who haunt Marguerite throughout, act as counterpoint; the feisty Prudence and Gaston Rieux, meanwhile, show the grittier side of the Paris demimonde. Without their contribution, the ballet would feel like a bout of Romantic indigestion; with them, new textures emerge.
The first cast struck an impeccable balance from top to bottom. Anna Antropova, a character dance specialist, lent Nanina, Marguerite’s maid, rare pathos in her short appearances; the virtuoso Vyacheslav Lopatin proved a poignant clown as the bespectacled Count N, one of Marguerite’s admirers. Kristina Kretova was cast to perfection in the role of Prudence, while Anna Tikhomirova was a blaze of theatricality as Manon.
The part of Marguerite was variously taken by three ballerinas who came to the Bolshoi from St Petersburg, home of the rival Mariinsky Ballet: Svetlana Zakharova, Olga Smirnova and Evgenia Obraztsova. The deep sense of lyricism nurtured at the Vaganova Academy – feeder school for the Mariinsky – was put to good use as the martyr courtesan fell for Armand and left him at his father’s request, with ensuing twists and turns.
In the second cast, the interpretation of Smirnova, the 22-year-old prodigy who wowed London last summer, was still a work in progress: proud and guarded in Act I, she only realised the strength of her feelings when she lost Armand. Still, the last two acts confirmed Smirnova as a peerless tragedienne in the making, Garbo-like in her soulful intensity.
Zakharova found more in the character. The Bolshoi prima’s performances have long been primarily an aesthetic rather than an emotional experience, but Lady of the Camellias seems to have struck a new chord in her. Neumeier’s decision to pair her with a principal from his Hamburg Ballet was a shrewd one: ardent almost to a fault, puppyish in his adoration, Ukraine-born Edvin Revazov was a disarming match for Zakharova’s disenchanted Marguerite. Newly vulnerable, the picture of mature abandon, Zakharova joined him in tender conversation. A belated awakening – and further proof that Neumeier’s ballet has found a good home here.