Alexandr Trusch and Alina Cojocaru © Kiran West

Neumeier’s “The Lady of the Camellias” in Venice

The Hamburg Ballet on tour at La Fenice, an ideal opera house to watch the American choreographer’s signature work, soaked with passion, cold elegance and poignant atmospheres.

by Alessandro Bizzotto

Based, as everyone knows, on the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, “The Lady of the Camellias” is considered by many John Neumeier’s true masterpiece, or at least the one able to attract and capture a broad audience.

So, it is hardly a surprise that the moment chosen to present the American choreographer with the 2023 “A Life in Music” Award (an Italian prize established in 1979) was the première of this ballet at La Fenice, during the Hamburg Ballet tour in Venice.

The German company brought five performances of this modern classic to the stunningly beautiful Venetian theatre last January, and the audience seemed to respond well.

Delivered over three long acts in a series of flashbacks, the story has no need to be explained – it follows the courtesan Marguerite and her ill-fated love story with Armand.

Charlotte Larzelere and Matias Oberlin © Kiran West

I’ve always loved its prologue. It all begins at an auction – we are in 1847, and the assets belonging to Marguerite are being sold. Some characters enter the stage, including Armand’s father who we will come later to realize is responsible for the end of the love affair. A pianist plays on stage wearing nineteenth century clothes. And Armand finally runs in, ready to relive the story and discover unknown details.

Created in 1979 for the Stuttgart Ballet and all set to Chopin, Neumeier’s “The Lady of the Camellias” is considered by some overly long and too coldly elegant to convey sincere emotion, yet its interweaving of flashbacks reveals the tragedy and its elements in a compelling, modern form, with its innovative way to conceive the space on stage and its sharp geometries.

Principal guest Alina Cojocaru dances Marguerite the way we are accustomed to see her dancing – she lives the story but struggles in making her own feelings reach the audience. Her naturalistic way of interpreting isn’t always fully understandable: she suffers but the strength which allows Marguerite to keep good on the promise made to Armand’s father is not always distinctly visible.

Alina Cojocaru, Xue Lin and Christopher Evans © Kiran West
Alexandr Trusch and Alina Cojocaru © Kiran West

Principal Alexandr Trusch brings both deep-rooted grief and ardent love to Armand. He does not embody just his passion and regret, but his vulnerability as well, which makes him an ideal interpreter of the role. Trusch gives of himself totally in adoration and yearning, and is a striking partner with his secure lifts and effortless carries.

As Manon, Principal Xue Lin is a feast for the eyes. The role is not that profound: Marguerite sees herself apprehensively as a reflection of Manon Lescaut, the figure created by the Abbé Prévost that appears in a ballet-within-the-ballet. Yet Lin dances with crystalline clarity, managing to be vivid and suggestive even under the heavy make-up. Principal Christopher Evans flawlessly supports her.

The characters of Prudence and Gaston Rieux are there show the mundane side of the Parisian atmosphere. Charlotte Larzelere is nearly perfect in the role of Prudence with her effervescent attitude, while Matias Oberlin can really steal a scene as Gaston with his buoyant dancing and playfully mischievous manner.

La Fenice, with his breath-taking light blue and gold décor, is an ideal opera house to watch this ballet, in a way. Its orchestra can do justice to Chopin’s poignant music, with Polish pianist Michal Bialk masterfully interpreting the score, particularly in the moving ending scene, when Marguerite dies alone as the last tones of the Largo from the Sonata in B minor vanish away.