Choreography: John Neumeier
Marguerite Gautier: Alina Cojocaru
Armanda Duval: Alexandr Trusch
Composer: Frédéric Chopin
Conductor: Markus Lehtinen
Piano: Michal Bialk
An exciting plan that had been long delayed for a wide range of reasons, my first visit to Venice was in the end totally worth the wait despite random crappy weather (But hey, at least I got to experience first-hand the acqua alta phenomenon), unsightly restoration work going on all over the place (As they say, no pain no gain) and places on my list of top priorities that were closed for winter (If you thought, like I did, that French tycoon Francois Pinault could afford keeping his Punta della Dogana exhibit space open all year round, well, think again).
One stop that I did make though was the Gran Teatro La Fenice, whose almost 300 years of life has famously been punctuated by vertiginous highs, such as world premières of works by Rossini, Verdi, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten, and heart-breaking lows, including no less than three devastating fires. But just like its mythological namesake, the performance venue has kept rising from its ashes undeterred, its current putti-filled space being a welcome break from the eye-popping but conventional red and gold splendor of many other European opera houses.
Although La Fenice is Venice’s opera house, unfortunately the timing of my trip did not coincide with any opera performances, and a ballet performance of La Dame aux Camélias was my only opportunity to see the space come alive. Since beggars cannot be choosers, a guided tour wouldn’t do, the score was after all by Frédéric Chopin, and there was that direct opera connection to La Traviata, I sucked it up and bought exorbitantly priced tickets for my visiting friend Vittorio and me.
That’s how we planned our Sunday in Venice around the matinee performance, making sure to leave plenty of time to find our way in the awfully confusing labyrinth that is the sestiere San Marco and to fit in yet another amazing lunch at a prudently short distance. And then, just as we were settling in our box in the company of two lovely women, an older local ballet buff and a younger Brazilian expat, I was thinking that life was not that bad when one decides to roll with the punches.
My interest in the show being mostly musical, I was looking forward to enjoying an extended Chopin marathon, regardless of the action unfolding on the stage. That said, given that the production has been around since 1978, I figured that it must be doing something right too. And in fact, the choreography, with a little help from the costumes, turned out to be generally smart and eloquent, if a bit traditional and repetitive, and made often ingenious use of Chopin’s deeply romantic, highly lyrical and delicately nuanced music.
My personal highlight was hands down the chance reunion of Armand and Marguerite, when their red-hot passion quickly reignited to the fervent élans of the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23, which also happens to be one of my favorite piano pieces ever. The honeymoon would be short though, and followed by another gripping scene, in which Armand publicly humiliated Marguerite by throwing money at her while the Grande Polonaise Brilliante in E-flat Major, Op. 22 was intensifying the relentless drama.
The daunting task of making Chopin’s complex music come to life for close to three hours fell on the shoulders (and hands) of eminently capable Polish pianist Michal Bialk, who was at times joined by a small orchestra. The score was not composed specifically for the ballet, but it suits the story remarkably well, and it is to Neumeier’s credit that he picked the right works from the composer’s prolific œuvre and adjusted his choreography accordingly to create an engaging narrative. Add a couple of visually dazzling tableaux, like the elegantly stylish ball scene that celebrated Marguerite’s return to her former life, and this Dame aux Camélias ended up being a rewarding introduction to La Fenice and a good start to our Sunday evening.