Hugo Marchand and Bianca Scudamore in “Le Rouge et le Noir” by Pierre Lacotte. Photograph by Svetlana Loboff / ONP

Red and Black

Pierre Lacotte's modern masterpiece for Paris Opera Ballet

Performance
Paris Opera Ballet: “Le Rouge et le Noir” by Pierre Lacotte
Place
Palais Garnier, Paris, France, October 14 - November 4, 2021
Words
Valentina Bonelli

Entire generations have grown up reading Le Rouge et le Noir, finding in the 1830 novel by Stendhal a Bildungsroman and in Julian Sorel an alter ego for our own aspirations of career and love. For those who would like to find again that esprit de jeunesse, Pierre Lacotte’s “Le Rouge et le Noir” is a ballet not to be missed. Obviously, they have to be fond of those grands ballets in classic style that no choreographer stages anymore. Monsieur Lacotte is probably the last one, a specialist of that kind, who at 90 years of age was able to create a masterpiece of three hours long, in 3 acts and 16 tableaux, with 274 people on stage. The full-house at the Palais Garnier every night proves that an excellent narrative ballet is not old-fashioned.

It’s true that “Le Rouge et le Noir” has a tormented story: it was supposed to premiere in 2019 but at first due to the strikes and then to the pandemic, the opening was delayed by two years. Even at its debut, with all the ballet world gathered to attend Lacotte’s final ballet, a devastating incident ruined the premiere: ten minutes after the beginning of the show, étoile Mathieu Ganio was injured and Florian Magnenet, a premiere danseur scheduled as a substitute, took his place, without any notice. We were not there but we can imagine the chaos behind the scenes, also because the ballet was especially created by Lacotte on the favourite Ganio (his James in “La Sylphide” as a young dancer) and, of course, because it’s impossible to imagine this ballet without the right Julien Sorel. Probably with some trouble among the company (and the audience!), the first cast was immediately rescheduled for the live screening in cinemas and for all the following performances. So, the expected second cast became the first one and, probably, the most cohesive, as it was natural to imagine the three main characters of the novel exactly like the dancers on stage, both in aesthetic and temperament. Étoile Hugo Marchand, with his powerful, unrefined beauty, was perfect as the popular Julien Sorel, able to seduce both bourgeoisie and aristocracy with his ambition and passion. Étoile Dorothée Gilbert, with her tortured charm, embodied a magnificent, touching Madame de Rênal, while Bianca Scudamore, a rising Sujet, was enchanting as the whimsical but finally conquered marquess, Mathilde de la Môle.   

Hugo Marchand as Julien Sorel in “Le Rouge et le Noir” by Pierre Lacotte. Photograph by Svetlana Loboff / OnP

Casting aside, the ballet was a huge success, and Lacotte conceived it in a perfect way. First of all, in the dramaturgy: he managed to express the great novel in so many tableaux, he recalls the exaltation and passion of those post-Napoleonic years, as well as the romanticism of the hero’s passions and upheavals, in a post-revolutionary society far from accepting of any social climbers.

With stage experience totalling half a century, Lacotte has danced and choreographed all the nineteenth century’s dance styles, and can easily switch from classical to dramatic to modern. Enclosed in a classical frame, the ballet presents each character with a variation on a leitmotiv theme: a way to express their own temperament and technical qualities. The core of “Le Rouge et le Noir” lies in the love duets between Julien and Madame de Rênal or Mathilde de la Môle, and they are finely composed, irresistibly moving, in dramatic style. After falling in love at first sight, how delicate the first pas de deux between Julien and Madame de Rênal finally alone in the courtyard of the family home and how passionate their bedroom pas de deux, as well as a touching last encounter in the cell before execution by guillotine. While, after an intriguing seduction made with a simple touch of her hands on his face, the bedroom pas de deux between Mathilde and Julien is full of desire.

Dorothée Gilbert and Hugo Marchand in “Le Rouge et le Noir” by Pierre Lacotte. Photograph by Svetlana Loboff / OnP

The luxurious ball at De la Môle castle is spectacular with its wonderful waltzes and classical use of the corps de ballet. The pantomime, useful in explaining the story, is natural and integrated. To a certain kind of modern choreography, namely French, other corps de ballet scenes could be referred, and very effectively so, like the male group of young seminarists in black cassocks or the mass of people attending Julien’s execution.

Lacotte’s knowledge of and predilection for the Romantic style suffuse the dreamlike tableau where the spirit of Madame de Rênal visits Julien in his cell at the seminary. Like in his ballet “L’Ombre,” she enters flying, carried by an invisible porteur and, dressed in a long white tutu, she tries to raise a desperate Julien from the ground like Giselle does, leaving the scene in a pas de couru reminiscent of la Sylphide. A precious quote of the Romantic is also the scene where a delightful Mathilde is admired by Julien while on a mobile staircase while looking for a book in the family’s library.

The set, conceived by Lacotte himself, contributes to the beauty of the ballet: in delicate black and white, the scenes, fine like ancient prints, reproduce palaces and villas, revived by the contrast of the coloured costumes in post-Revolution style. With its 20 compositions by Jules Massenet arranged by conductor Jonathan Darlington, the music too, with its poignant élan, is the perfect score for this ballet.

There is no doubt that “Le Rouge et le Noir” should become a calling card for the Paris Opera Ballet, and as unique repertoire, they should reschedule it almost every season like a classic.

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