When The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils appeared in 1848 the subject held no interest for the ballet of the time. This tale of a courtesan, whose real name was known all over Europe and who had been a mistress of Franz Liszt and Dumas himself, was far too realistic. Audiences wanted to see fairies dancing on stage. Not until the mid-twentieth century did choreographers discover the poetic potential of the consumptive courtesan. In his version, John Neumeier only uses music by Frédéric Chopin and turns the story into a romantic, melancholy
The courtesan Marguerite Gautier has died of consumption. At the auction of her estate, Armand Duval meets his father. The two men reminisce about Marguerite: Armand had fallen passionately in love with the courtesan at a performance of the opera Manon Lescaut and his love had awakened in her the hope that her consumption might be cured. Armand’s father, however, was opposed to the liaison. He confronted Marguerite with the fact that no gentleman would marry Armand’s sister if he were to live with a courtesan. For the sake of the girl, whom she had never met, Marguerite sacrificed her love and, as she very well knew, her life too. Because once she left Armand and returned to the demimonde of Paris, the disease returned. Her wish to see Armand one more time before she dies was not fulfilled. At the auction, Marguerite’s maid Nanina gives Armand a diary. Armand is shocked when he reads about Marguerite’s final days, her longing and her lonely death.
In Dumas’s text, Armand gives Marguerite a copy of the novel Manon Lescaut. Consequently, Neumeier adds the characters of Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux to his ballet, and they repeatedly appear to Marguerite. In them, the thoughts, doubts and dreams of Marguerite and Armand are reflected. The ballet ends with a “pas de trois” imagined by Marguerite in which she identifies herself so strongly with the lovers that she no longer knows whether it is Armand or Des Grieux or whether she is Marguerite or Manon. The loneliness and isolation of Manon and
Des Grieux accompany her as she dies.