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Lady of the Camellias (18/19)

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Lady of the Camellias being my favourite ballet, I was happy to see it return once again, finally, to the Old Stage. I went to see the premiere of the second cast this Saturday and can with an ecstatic heart report back that not only did I rediscover my love for this ballet, but this cast made me love it all the more, all the fresher and all the brighter. Never have I seen the two main characters portrayed so lovingly and sympathetically and never have I had a difficult time deciding whether to look at Armand or Marguerite, when they were both on stage at the same time. This time I did.

Kizzy Matiakis, one of the RDB's dramatic heavyweights, debuted as Marguerite and transformed the role into something sublime and complete. She went beyond the somewhat clichéd and tired portrayal of a pretty courtesan who loves and dies of heartbreak first, consumption only secondly, adding an undertone of rawness to the part that I haven't seen anyone do and will probably forever miss from now on, when I see the production again as danced by others. It was little things, how she would sometimes slouch and lose her elegant bearing, the way she coughed (it wasn't pretty, it was ugly and harsh and heart-wrenching). As danced by her, Marguerite's transformation becomes clearly evident, she is playful and tempted by Armand, but clinging to her comforts in the purple pas de deux in the first act, succumbing eventually to love and devotion by giving up that which could guarantee her the easy life in the white pas de deux and finally, struggling with her decision to give it all up in a passionate, heart-faltering, fast black pas de deux. The story was told effortlessly and without forcing any one understanding of the two characters' relationship down anyone's throats. They laid it out and the audience took it in - and, might I add, they seemed to love it. Never have I before seen the audience engage so strongly in this ballet. People laughed at Armand's dramatics as he threw himself before her feet, the silence was quivering during the PDDs, as if we were really touched by their love, physically, and the sobbing during the final moments of the ballet was audible. Not only on my part. Matiakis created a Marguerite who has lived the comfortable life long enough to almost lose her soul to it, finding it awakened by her love for Armand and becoming addicted to this feeling of care and integrity - the same integrity that makes her give him up when his father asks her to, slowly losing herself to her illness without his love for her to keep her strong. It was heart-breaking and honest and intense. I've never seen a Marguerite like Matiakis' before and I've seen all the Danish ones, plus a fair few on YouTube and DVD. I will be seeing the same cast this Saturday and my only hope for improvement will be that they let go a little more in the lifts. They were performed beautifully and steadily, but bearing the mark of first night nerves, so very safely, too, with no reckless abandon until the black PDD where we got abandon in spades.

Alexander Bozinoff is a dancer I hadn't expected a lot from in this role. Having seen him dance several leading roles, I'd thought he'd be passable, but nothing special or groundbreaking, but oh boy, was I wrong. If Matiakis brought something new and fresh to the role, Bozinoff rewrote Armand for me. I will never find an Armand I will feel is mine again as I did with him. From the first moment when he ran on stage and you could hear his desperate, heaving breathing all the way to the balcony, I was sold. He was a young Armand, but also a caring, sympathetic and devoted Armand. Often I have seen portrayals of this character where his solo in act 2 makes me think he's just a spoiled man-child, but there was none of this with Bozinoff. The way he would touch Matiakis' Marguerite as if he almost didn't dare lay a hand on her, the way he'd be drawn to her like a bee to a flower, the way he has no scruples laying it all down and telling her he loves her, caring little for her illness or her position... It was a heartfelt, honest take on the character, as if you felt these things came from deep inside the dancer himself. His chemistry with Matiakis was absolutely sublime. They lived and breathed for each other when they were on stage together, the way he'd carry her, the way they'd respond to each other. This was love. Perfectly portrayed. And about that second act solo. I think it was Bozinoff's earnestness that did it for me. He seemed more desperate than angry, more heartbroken than entitled. And the part of the choreography where he runs back to Paris to find Marguerite with the Duke (nobly portrayed by Matteo Di Loreto) - a part of the choreography that has always looked a little bit ridiculous to me, well, it made my heart leap into my throat this time and only felt horribly, horribly heart-breaking to watch.

My favourite scene, one I often overlook otherwise, was the scene at the ball when Armand pays Marguerite for her services. Perhaps it was because Bozinoff made me care about Armand finally, but suddenly the entire thing came together and the ensemble along with the soloists just brought so much story-telling and presence to that scene. It felt awful to watch the money be passed to her. It felt awful the way he stood at the opposite end of the stage and cried his eyes out. It felt awful and I've never felt anything in particular for this scene before. The dancing, the way he's drag her around and be very forceful and violent with her also translated beautifully onto the stage and I was honestly mesmerized all way through.

Framed in by a strong cast all-over, the ballet was just a joy to watch from start to finish. Jonathan Chmelensky was a very striking, precise and funny Gaston and his partnership with Astrid Elbo as Prudence (her debut) was something to write home about, even if she wasn't the strongest Prudence I've seen on her own. She was charming and funny, but turned a bit anonymous when sharing the stage with Matiakis' Marguerite. Marcin Kupinski really got to show off his partnering skills as Des Grieux with a both very beautiful and very tragic Silvia Selvini as Manon. Their death scene, both the acted one and the real one at the end, was remarkable. Christina Michanek was a very loving and long-suffering Nanina. Benjamin Buza was a stern and strong Monsieur Duval who made the scene him and Marguerite share something indescribably hurtful and tender at the same time. Finally, both Guilherme De Menezes and Wilma Giglio didn't quite make me feel Count de N. and Olympia as much as I usually do, especially Olympia's part of the choreography counting amongst my favourite scenes normally. Perhaps they will catch my eye more next Saturday...

One thing I'm also hoping for some improvement in regards to would be the music. The piano didn't play quite as well as I know it can in the first two acts, especially impacting the ensemble scenes, though in the third act it really found its sound and left me crying over the beauty of Chopin.

All in all, though, I will say that this is one of those performances - that if this would be the last Lady of the Camellias that I should ever get to watch, that would be okay. I wouldn't mind at all remembering the ballet this way. It was stunningly beautiful. It was as close to perfection as any one ballet performance can ever come.

The first cast has been reviewed by Eva Kistrup, so if anyone want to read for comparison, her review is up on her site.

The Royal Theatre has made a small interview with Neumeier about staging Lady of the Camellias in Copenhagen and it features clips of the cast I've seen. It can be found here: https://video.kglteater.dk/john-neumeier-om-kameliadamen

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Revisiting this ballet and this cast yesterday was not just an experience, but a true blessing. All premiere nerves seemed to have worn off everyone and the one major casting switch (Gregory Dean danced the role of Des Grieux instead of Marcin Kupinski) was a thoroughly positive one.

Whereas it was the love story between the two leads that made the experience so intense and interesting last time, both Matiakis and Bozinoff had developed nuances to their portrayals of Marguerite and Armand at this point, so that besides a beautiful love story, the two character's individual story arcs came out much more vividly than when I saw them at their premiere. Somehow this elevated the ballet to new heights. I called it perfection Saturday last and I mean that, still, but the production that the entire company put on yesterday was simply beyond perfection.

The parallels between Manon, Des Grieux, Marguerite and Armand were shown very clearly, a special energy coming over the stage whenever Matiakis was faced with Silvia Selvini as Manon or Dean's Des Grieux mirrored Bozinoff's Armand.

Last time I had been particularly enamoured with the first act, this time I was particularly enamoured with the second and the third (though, the theatre scene in the first act was honestly the one to beat in standard, what a performance by both Dean and Selvini). Perhaps because the music was so wonderfully on point this time (everything was amazingly played by Allison Smith, I've never heard this ballet sound so good) and most of the ensemble dancing takes place in those two acts... The countryside act and the white ensemble dancing was just so lovely to look at - just as the ballroom scene in act three was taken to new heights by both dancers and pianist. Furthermore, the development of the relationship between Marguerite and Armand was shown with great skill and confidence. In the white act, not only the pas de deux was amazing (so fluid, gentle and breathtakingly soft), but there were little, tender moments portrayed by Matiakis and Bozinoff in the ensemble scenes and intermediate scenes. The way Matiakis would all but wrap her arms around Bozinoff's neck and the back of his head as they danced their waltz among the other waltzers - or the way she repeated this motion later when saying her goodbyes to Armand, a simple gesture, perhaps, but full of meaning and dramatic weight. It was quite simply beautiful.

However, the greatest elevation in performance was in the black pas de deux. It was very well performed last time, but like I wrote, the pas de deuxs overall lacked some abandon - none of the pas de deux did that this time and especially not the black where both Matiakis and Bozinoff truly gave it their all, it was remarkable and so in the music. The passion was intense and the entire audience was just waiting to break out in applause near the end. The way the two dancers managed to create parallels in their dancing, so that you really felt Armand's and Marguerite's stories run like never-quite-touching lines at this point in the ballet, which also made the times when their hands would link or the second part of the pas de deux during the love-making stand out all the more poignantly. Like, you looked at the way they'd repeat each other's motions and know it was only a temporary refuge... Very passionate and very tragic.

Framed it by an entire cast where absolutely everyone gave it their best and delivered amazing portrayals of every character, yesterday was an intense experience. I have to once more mention Selvini as Manon, because although she was very good last time, yesterday she was a star. Some of the patches where she had been a little more rough Saturday last were cleaned up nicely and you couldn't see that she'd changed partners, perhaps only for the better, really. She and Dean worked really well together and had very well balanced portrayals of Des Grieux and Manon, so good that a relationship development could also be felt and traced in their story line and dancing which I don't think I've ever seen in this ballet before, not as clearly. Dean is an incredible partner and just swung Selvini around like she was lighter than air, their lifts worked very smoothly and impressively. Jonathan Chmelensky was in sparkling form as Gaston, his partnering of Astrid Elbo as Prudence absolutely breathtaking, her long legs really getting shown off in those throws and lifts. Elbo herself had really found and polished her interpretation of Prudence and portrayed a young-spirited, playful courtesan with some sharp edges here and there, although she showed great, genuine care for Marguerite and this made her character more likable than I usually think she's portrayed at. I really liked it and if she was a bit anonymous last time, none of that this time around - her solo in act two was one of the individual highlights! Guilherme De Menezes made quite the character of Count N. this time, too and he had several striking moments where his desperation and adoration for Marguerite mix together to a sort of pitiful sweetness that was a lovely take on the character. Finally, another development of the role was seen with Wilma Giglio as Olympia, this time performing very strongly and beautifully, really showing the coquettishness and dainty nature of the character, but most importantly she just danced so wonderfully to the lovely piece of music that plays during Olympia's solo. It was so lovely to look at and she helped made the Champs-Élysées scene one of the most remarkable versions I've seen yet. The way the women's shoes would move in time with the music, beating out little rhythms with their pointes, the uneasy movement, the muted colours and then Olympia's pop of pink... Yes, it was one of my favourite scenes.

All in all, a perfect performance and a perfect cast had improved in ways I didn't even think possible and since this will be my last Lady of this run (and who really knows when it will return, neither the times I've attended has played for a full house, I fear - so maybe my last Lady for a while, if not forever), I'm glad the experience was so supremely, sublimely beautiful.

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