Boston Ballet: Lady of the Camellias
Opera House, Boston, MA; February 26 & 28, 2015

Carla DeFord

Katheen Breen Combes and Yury Yanowsky in 'Lady of the Camellias'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Katheen Breen Combes and Yury Yanowsky in ‘Lady of the Camellias’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

In the course of Val Caniparoli’s “Lady of the Camellias” Marguerite Gautier, a notorious denizen of the Parisian demimonde, is almost transformed into one of the camellias she is famous for wearing. Her flower-like qualities become more apparent as she submits to the inevitable arc of her life and endures unimaginable suffering.  Ultimately unable to escape her destiny, she dies a broken blossom.

While technically accomplished, the opening nightperformances of Kathleen Breen Combes as Marguerite, and her husband, Yury Yanowsky as her lover Armand Duval seemed to have a slightly self-conscious quality, as if they were not completely comfortable with the choreography.

Because Yanowsky is known for the explosive fury he can bring to the stage, I felt confident that Armand’s public humiliation of Marguerite in Act III would be especially effective, but the confrontation seemed muted. In the Act II bedroom scene, the complicated lifts were wonderfully done, but there were times when Breen Combes looked as if she were bracing herself (physically and mentally) for the next move. My guess is that by the time the season closed, they were able to be more relaxed.

Two days later Ashley Ellis and Sabi Varga took the lead roles. Varga is, and always has been, a wonderful actor. I found him especially convincing in Act III when Armand, burning with rage at his lover’s supposed betrayal, throws money at Marguerite’s feet  At the end of Act II his positions in his father’s arms, which first echo Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” and then the heroine’s death in MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet”, were memorable. “Lady of the Camellias” is Marguerite’s story, however, and Ellis taught its meaning.

What struck most about Ellis’s performance was the sense that Marguerite is a sacrificial lamb: “agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi.” In Act III she sits downstage facing the audience while the duel between Armand and her ‘protector,’ Baron de Varville, takes place behind her. After the baron has been shot, she rises and surveys the devastation she has caused. Grief-stricken, she realizes her helplessness before the crushing forces arrayed against her.

Yet her suffering is not in vain; her purity of heart (if not of body) gives it significance.  Although there is no reconciliation with Armand in this version of the story, we and M. Duval Sr. know what she has given up for the sake of her lover and his family. In the final scene Marguerite goes upstage to a large trunk, takes out the dress she wore when she first met Armand, and holds it close to her.  Then she sits at her vanity table, powders her face, and puts on lip rouge.

When Breen Combes did this, I imagined that she wanted to be beautiful for Armand one last time. When Ellis did it, her eyes were so empty, it was clear she knew she would never be beautiful again. In applying her make-up, she seemed to be performing an embalming ritual. Her gestures said, in effect, “La commedia è finita.”

Although there is no actual mirror on the vanity table (since it would cut off our view of the ballerina), it’s safe to imagine one there. When Ellis looked into that mirror, what she saw was the face of death, and she accepted her fate without flinching. This allowed the audience not just to pity Marguerite but to admire her courage, and it elevated her story from tear jerker to tragedy.

As she’s in her death throes, Marguerite holds a camellia to her face and drinks in its perfume. In doing so she bears witness to the notion that she will not perish utterly, that the memory of her love, like the scent of the flower, will outlive her – “the song is ended, but the melody lingers on.”

Ellis’s performance was an absolute tour de force. The generosity of her phrasing, the perfection of her positions, the way she used her eyes to show flirtatiousness, disbelief, and despair, all gave enormous depth to her characterization. Kudos to ballet master and former principal dancer Larissa Ponomarenko, a celebrated Marguerite, who coached the ballerinas and with whom Ellis clearly developed her interpretation of the role.

A few words about the costumes: in Act I the entire female company was dressed in pale, mostly gray and cream, dresses. This meant that one could not identify the star of the show quickly and had to search for her. In Act III the costumes were gorgeous and well received; when the curtain opened to reveal the men in tuxedos and the women in glittering ball gowns, the audience gasped in appreciation. Unfortunately, because the ladies wore black, full-length gloves and the backdrop was navy blue, it was nearly impossible to see their port de bras. Changing the color of the backdrop would seem to be an easy fix.

In addition to the lead couples, the other stars of the show were two Boston Ballet pianists, Alex Foaksman (in Act I) and Freda Locker (in Acts II and III).  They played approximately two hours of Chopin concertos per performance, preceded by numerous run-throughs that further taxed their stamina. Both deserve medals for service above and beyond the call of duty. The last time Boston Ballet presented “Lady of the Camellias” was in 2004, and Locker played the entire score herself. Sometime after that she was interviewed on a local TV program and talked about what a monumental task it had been. She recalled that during her stage bow on the last night of the production, members of the Boston Ballet Orchestra threw flowers at her. Let this be the bouquet I toss to you, Ms. Locker and Mr. Foaksman. Your heroism did not go unnoticed.