Alexandre Dumas fils’s semi-autobiographical 1848 novel “La dame aux camélias” was a hit when he adapted it for the Paris stage in 1852, and Giuseppe Verdi had a similar success when he turned it into the opera “La traviata” the following year. The 1936 film “Camille,” with Greta Garbo, did pretty well too. As a ballet, on the other hand, Dumas’s tale hasn’t been as popular, whether in Frederick Ashton’s half-hour version, “Marguerite and Armand,” created for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn and set to the Liszt piano sonata, or in John Neumeier’s 1978 staging set to music by Chopin.
In 2004, Boston Ballet presented Val Caniparoli’s “Lady of the Camellias,” which he did for Ballet Florida in 1994, also to music by Chopin. Now artistic director Mikko Nissinen has brought it back. The ballet is no “Swan Lake,” but on opening night at the Opera House on Thursday, Yury Yanowsky as Armand and Kathleen Breen Combes as Marguerite made it seem like a beloved classic.
Dumas’s plot is simple but not so easy to depict in a ballet. Parisian courtesan Marguerite Gautier falls in love with young Armand Duval, but Armand’s father asks her to give his son up because he fears her profession will tarnish the family name. Moved, Marguerite returns to her previous patron, a sorrowful Armand abuses her and leaves, and she dies of consumption. The cast in the libretto that Norbert Vesak and Robert Glay de La Rose devised for the ballet includes the Baron de Varville as “Armand’s rival”; “roué” St. Gaudins and his mistress, Olympe; “young lover” Gustave and his fiancée, Nichette; “playboy” Gaston; a pair of suitors for Marguerite; and Prudence, “a milliner & member of the demi-monde.” There’s even a “dream Armand” and a “dream Marguerite.” Which means “Lady of the Camellias” has lots of individual roles for company members.
What it doesn’t have is a balletic score. The music Chopin wrote in Paris would have been appropriate to the time period, the 1840s, but most of what Vesak and de La Rose chose is from his early period, when he was still in Poland. Act one segues awkwardly from the militant opening tutti of the E-minor piano concerto into the concluding krakowiak, then cuts back to the recapitulation of the first movement for Armand and Marguerite’s drawing-room duet and the luscious slow movement for their bedroom pas de deux. The second and third acts include music from another krakowiak, the “Là ci darem la mano” Variations, the “Fantasy on Polish Airs,” the Grande Polonaise and Andante Spianato, and the song “Nie ma czego trzeba” (“I Want What I Have Not”).
The sets are minimal, which is not a bad thing. Act one, in Marguerite’s salon, features French doors the height of the Arc de Triomphe and a few French Provincial furnishings. Act two, outside the country house Armand and Marguerite share, boasts a pair of swings; Act three moves from Olympe’s ballroom, with its huge chandeliers, to Marguerite’s sparsely appointed bedroom.
The plot is still apt to puzzle anyone who hasn’t read a synopsis. Olympe at least makes a play for Armand. But St. Gaudins barely registers, and Gaston, Gustave, and Nichette, for all their swell dancing, have no impact on the story. You would hardly know that the severe gentleman who intrudes in the middle of act two is Armand’s father, or why he wants to separate Armand and Marguerite.
None of that mattered Thursday, given the superb cast the company sent out. Yanowsky and Breen Combes, who are husband and wife, don’t often get to dance together, and on the evidence of this performance, you have to wonder why. Yanowsky is retiring after this production to focus on his choreography; he’s no longer a bravura dancer, but he still moves with an animal grace, and his boyish enthusiasm makes it easy for him to play a much younger man. Breen Combes, half sweetheart and half party girl, beamed at him throughout, as if she couldn’t believe her luck. She leaned on Chopin’s phrases, finding the right harmonic pulse points, and she and Yanowsky, managing Caniparoli’s athletic lifts, gave a sweep and flow to his choreography that I didn’t see in 2004.
Paulo Arrais was a flamboyant Gaston; Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga made a light, fluid Gustave and Nichette; Lia Cirio was seductively animated as Olympe. Two former company dancers made a welcome return in guest appearances. Boston Ballet faculty member Pavel Gurevich was brusque and stern as Armand’s clenched-fist father; Melanie Atkins, who’s now the company’s children’s ballet mistress, had a scene-stealing turn as Prudence.
Neither the orchestra nor pianist Alex Foaksman sounded comfortable in the first act. Freda Locker, who’ll share the performances with Foaksman, was the pianist in the second and third acts; she’s had more experience with this music (she played all the 2004 performances), and it showed. The orchestra seemed to warm up as well. One change Caniparoli made from 2004 was to have “Nie ma czego trzeba” sung twice, in the second act by tenor Rockland Osgood and in the third by soprano Alexandra Whitfield. It was a good thought; the song is so beautiful, I wish he had ended the ballet with it.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.