Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan, music by Jules Massenet
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux and Marianela Núñez as Manon Credit: Alice Pennefather
Ricardo Cervera as Lescaut, Marianela Núñez as Manon and Christopher Saunders as Monsieur GM in Manon Credit: Alice Pennefather
Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux and Marianela Núñez as Manon Credit: Alice Pennefather
Christopher Saunders as Monsieur GM, Marianela Núñez as Manon and Ricardo Cervera as Lescaut in Manon Credit: Alice Pennefather
Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux and Marianela Núñez as Manon Credit: Alice Pennefather

One wonders on this fortieth anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s heart-rending version of Abbé Prévost’s 18th-century novel, L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, whether, like Flaubert with his Madame Bovary, he ever thought, Manon, c’est moi, so affecting is his psychological understanding of the inequities of the 18th-century social divide in Regency France, and the character of Manon within that context.

In the foreword of my Garnier edition (standing next to Flaubert’s Bovary…) I find this: L’action du roman est profondément engagée dans l’epoque. The more I see Manon the more I appreciate MacMillan’s undertaking, the more I value his reading of the tragic arc of Manon’s swift rise and fall. She doesn’t stand a chance in that environment.

Nicholas Georgiadis’s rich carriages and gilt sedan chairs sit next to rags and desperate poverty in the market place, feral malodorous importuning creatures scrambling for coins cast by the upper classes enjoying the frisson, all chancers in life’s lottery.

Women still with something to sell, and next to them a warning: a cart of shorn-headed women, plucked like chickens, with nothing left to sell, on the road to prison colonies in the New World.

Into this arrives Manon, greeted by her ne’er-do-well brother Lescaut, already versed in the name of the game—both seem to have fallen from the same tree. Before long he is pimping her to the highest bidder, a certain Monsieur G.M., a man of high standing, a man used to getting what he wants.

But, fate in the shape of Des Grieux, a young student of good breeding almost impedes her pathway to high-class courtesan. He too sees her arrive in Paris from the country and it’s love at first sight.

And it is this duality in her nature that interpreters of Manon have to navigate. Her love for the young man, and her fear of poverty, her love of money and what it confers.

Marianela Nuñez with her seductive blinding smile brings out the coquette and royal courtesan in Manon. She knows her own worth. Furs and jewels are her right. She does not belong with the lower orders. Act two is her natural milieu—the hôtel particulier where all vices are permitted, and where she is paraded on her Monsieur’s arm, the queen of the night, a prize trophy dressed to the nines. She luxuriates in the male gaze.

Des Grieux must have money to keep her, but cheating the powerful Monsieur at cards with the connivance of her and her brother is not a good move on his part. She wants it both ways, and this is their undoing.

Her brother is shot by Monsieur, and she follows those poor girls seen in the opening act, the only difference is that her besotted young man choses to go with her. But New Orleans proves to be no different than Paris: men buy women, like the commodities they are, here too. Des Grieux can’t save her.

The Gaoler, a Monsieur G.M. equivalent, has the power, and like him always gets what he wants. Like him, he dangles a bracelet before her, a bracelet cuff motif that needs no explanation. He takes her; he rapes her every which way.

Manon’s young lover kills her rapist and they flee through the disorientating misty creeper-hung swamps. Her past life playing out behind her eyes, she manages a final duet and dies. Is there a dry eye in the house as Federico Bonelli weeps over her corpse?

The ensemble dancing is superb, Laura Morera, cast as Lescaut’s vivacious mistress, is outstanding, as is Ricardo Cervera's Lescaut, his dancing fleet and fancy, his acting a treat. James Hay makes a cheeky Beggar Chief, and Gary Avis and Christopher Saunders, old hands in the roles, are imposing as respectively The Gaoler and Monsieur G. M.

Bonelli’s trusting boyish face and physique suits the role of student well. MacMillan’s choreography has Bonelli dancing better than I’ve seen him in a while. His lovesick adagio solo in the first act is sweetness itself.

But it is MacMillan’s pas de deux between the young lovers, the beating heart of this sensual three-act narrative ballet that one comes to see. And one never goes away disappointed whatever the level of investment from the performers. Betrayal, vengeance, legs, feet, phallic, erotic love and pure eternal love, a thrilling adult scenario.

Massenet’s music, so cleverly knit by Leighton Lucas with the assistance of Hilda Grant, has been re-orchestrated by Martin Bates—the orchestra is richly rewarded by the audience—is divine, literally, in places, religious oratorios amongst the orchestral suites, mélodies, and extracts from operas (not his Manon though). Clair Rowden’s programme notes on Massenet and The Manon Score are invaluable.

Manon is a must-see, no question about that, a modern classic, an impressive opening to the Royal Ballet New Season. If you tire of Manon, you must be tired of life, to misquote Dr Johnson. This opening cast can be seen on Live Cinema Relay on 16 October. The subsequent casting is fail-proof.

I would love to see them all: Sarah Lamb with Vadim Muntagirov debuting as Des Grieux; Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae; Laura Morera and Nehemiah Kish; Melissa Hamilton and Matthew Golding both debuting; Soloist Francesca Hayward (another debut) is paired with Edward Watson; and Zinaida Yanowsky with guest principal Roberto Bolle end the long run. Sadly, evenings with Natalia Osipova, debuting as Manon, and Carlos Acosta are already sold out.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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