"THE LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS"
A ballet in Three Acts
On hearing of her death Dumas wrote a novel fictionalizing their relationship, and in 1848 it was published. Because of its great success and it was common to do so at the time, Dumas adapted the book into a play, but owing to censorship the production was postponed for three years, the premiere only took place on February 3 1852, five years to the day after the death of Marie.
In this, the Romantic age, literary and performing arts usually addressed the exotic and the supernatural: monsters in Frankenstein (1818), Sylphs in La Sylphide (1832) and Wilis in Giselle (1841) were the order of the day. La Dame aux Camelias was an extraordinary novel far its time, not only presenting a story of contemporary characters, but having a courtesan as the heroine and treating her with compassion in an age when the prostitute was seen as the ultimate fallen woman spreading a "miasmatic mist of disease and corruption" in a society of strict Victorian moral standards.
Another aspect of the story, which would have caught the imagination of Dumas' midnineteenth century audiences, was the fact that the Romantics had a macabre fascination with sufferers of tuberculosis and to "wear a consumptive appearance" was extremely fashionable. Dumas' heroine suffered from this illness, so death was imminent and that with the possible redemption of her sins by the sacrifice of her great love far the honour of her lover's family, made the story more socially acceptable, and indeed extremely popular, as it has remained to this day.
Dumas renamed the heroine Marguerite Gautier in his literary works. In Verdi's La Traviata (1853) she becomes Violetta Valery and in the Thirties, Greta Garbo immortalised her as Marguerite in the film Camille, which was directed by George Cukor. Whichever name we use, the character of this courtesan continues to fascinate interpreters, directors, choreographers and audiences world-wide.
Although Verdi's La Traviata is one of the most popular operas of all time, whose melodies almost everyone knows (even if they know not whence they came) and whose plot these days is unlikely to arouse anyone's moral indignation, it must be remembered that during its early years it was the subject of heated controversy and scathing reviews. Its introduction into England saw a Bill pushed through Parliament that became the Obscene Publication Act and provoked such criticism in the press as: "La Dame de Camelias (sic) was a story untenable for music. Consumption for one who is to sing! A ballet with a lame Sylphide would be as rational." However, these tirades against moral degeneracy and "an offence to maidenly delicacy" did not stop the public flocking to the London theatres to be depraved and corrupted but also to hear beautiful music brilliantly sung.
La Traviata and its predecessor, II Trovatore, are typical examples of Verdi's middle period. In fact it is quite incredible how similar the music of bath these operas sounds, but by same uncanny act of genius one arouses swashbuckling heroics with knights and castles and swords, while the other evokes the elegance of the salons and the "shadows of promiscuity and disillusion".
Maybe it was the fact that the life of Marie Duplessis and her circumstances struck a loud resounding chord in Verdi's heart and expressed guilt and love similar to that which he was feeling in his illicit liaison with Giuseppina Strepponi. Whatever the links between the real Marie, the fictional Marguerite Gautier, the operatic Violetta and the live Giuseppina, they resulted in a superb musical characterisation of the period and the emotions felt by real people. Verdi's orchestration in this opera, too, shows considerable development for time and again he finds just the right orchestral timbre to highlight a situation or an emotion.
To translate the opera into a ballet is a formidable challenge - particularly in an opera where the star of the evening is the prima donna.
To tamper too must with Verdi's original orchestral colouring is also to lose all the subtleties in which the score abounds. In the main I have tried to keep as closely as possible to what Verdi actually wrote, choosing the colour or sound of a particular instrument to carry the vocal line. Far example, Alfredo's melodies (Armand in the ballet) are frequently heard an the French Horn, an instrument clearly associated with the Romantic in its soft tones and with ardour and virility in its louder sounds. Verdi himself associates Violetta (Camille) with the clarinet for intimacy and the oboe for more poignant emotions.
As is usually the case with a transcription of this kind, there are situations where there is no music to fit exactly what is happening balletically. In Act One, the first meeting between Camille and Armand requires a pas de deux and so does the early blossoming of their love before Camille's solo which closes the act. To use the same material for both seemed somewhat redundant and so I have written new music far the first pas de deux, using Violetta's "Amami Alfreda" theme, first heard in the prelude, as the main source, and kept "Un di felice" far the second one.
Click on the links on the left for more information on other ballets