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Boston Ballet - 'Lady of the Camellias'

The Singular Capacity to Seduce

by S.E. Arnold

April 3, 2004 -- Wang Center, Boston, Massachusetts

Scuttled by dark Fortune and in her final moment left “Alone, alone, all all alone,” the disease wasted Marguerite slipped from her world’s fevered pale into eternity. Dissolved by an intense white light that engulfed her fallen and cross-shaped form, only the airy sound of a delicate Chopin cantilena tolled her passing.

In his meditation on this unhappy tale of selfless love, Val Caniparoli’s use of the early works of Chopin, 1830-1836, locates the ballet in its historical setting and by their improvisational aspect informs the ‘party’ atmosphere of the ballet. Divided into three acts and four scenes, the action of "Lady of the Camellias," except for the country Garden Scene of Act II, develops in opulent, Rembrandt lit interiors of ballrooms and boudoirs. Although in Act III the gowns worn by the ladies are extravagant in gilded lace work, their costumes for Act I & II are appropriately elegant. The males, by contrast, wear either black formal or casual tan and white costumes cut to a pattern typical of the time period.

Early 19th century concerts advertised as ‘extemporaneous performances’ promised dazzling pyrotechnic displays of piano or violin playing. The improvisational works that promoted this virtuosity featured abrupt changes of musical values such as tempo, dynamic levels, texture, tonal centers, and timbre. Formally composed works meaning to capture this improvisational flavor followed the forms typically used in such concerts. Forms such as the rondo, theme and variations on familiar folk or opera tunes, and the fantasy, for example, accommodated this kind of display, and, one thinks, suggested the musical equivalent of Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” as the source of poetry, if not of all artistic endeavor. Publishers marketed these compositions with titles like ‘grand,’ and ‘brillante,’ along with the form or tune at the center of the piece.

Caniparoli’s choice of Chopin works with titles such as "Grand Fantasie on a Polish Tune in A," "Grand Polonaise Brilante" and "Andante Spianto, "Variation on “La ci darem las mono,” from Mozart’s "Don Giavonni," and "Krakowiak (Concerto Rondo)" and others, for example, locates the ballet historically and the ethos that resonates from it. Additionally, the melodic ornamentation characteristic of the variation or fantasy, for example, also informs the décor. More importantly, however, the oft-cited criticism of virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake as an empty gesture or a great deal of effort that yields little of substance turns the music of the ballet into a photonegative of Marguerite’s moral effort. Although motivated by a genuine desire to do the morally correct thing, her efforts instead set up the conditions that bring on Baron De Varville’s death and turn Armand Duval into a murderer. In the end, abandoned by love and wasted by tuberculosis, Marguerite with neither social nor physical substance vanishes in light.

However, within the world of "Lady of the Camellias" Caniparoli channels virtuosity and its attendant frivolity into the service of his narrative. The Party Scene in Act I and the Garden Scene in Act II, for example, offers a fast paced weave of dances for trios, solos, and ever changing combinations of male and female dancers that either illustrated a party’s spontaneity, such as with the Champagne glasses in Act I or balls in Act II, or defined the characters of Olympe and her lover, or Nichette and her fiance, and the host of other want-to-be swingers. The jumps, turns, and beating movements, for example, showed males on sexual display or made reckless by the alcohol, rather than calling attention to the steps.

Yet in Marguerite and Armand's Act I pas de deux, even in the rapture of the lifting turn that brings Marguerite’s white draped form up and out, forming a halo around the couple, the choreography seemed poignantly understated. In fact, Marguerite’s role requires a ballerina that can act. And, perhaps, it is this feature of Caniparoli’s ballet that (ironically) illustrates the impact that Nissinen and his artistic staff have had on the Boston Ballet. Whether it was the compelling performances given by Melanie Atkins in the Saturday matinee or Lorna Feijoo that evening, both dancers filled the role of Marguerite with life. And as life, energy, care, and more seem to drive and radiate from "Lady of the Camellias" so it flows from the Boston Ballet. And, like Marguerite, the company’s dancers have a singular capacity to seduce.

Edited by Jeff.

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