Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan, music by Jules Massenet
Royal Opera House
Manon, last seen at the Royal Opera House in May this year, is back so soon, giving some opportunity to consolidate performances and some a chance to debut in the lead roles. Monica Mason in her last season as artistic director is evidently showcasing the Royal Ballet’s history and strengths in her programming choices, and probably being sentimental, but she’s allowed.
Though first night casting were Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather (reviewed here in May), it was Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin making their debuts that one wanted to see. And what a thrill they prove to be. Who knew… One suspected, one anticipated, but one is never quite sure about Polunin—good dancer, but actor?
Cuthbertson gives herself totally to the eponymous role. One reads she even selects perfume to suit the part. I wonder which one masks the stench of corruption? Lescaut’s mistress (a role Monica Mason danced in the original cast) in 2008, she graduates with five star honours in this role, an English rose transformed into a licentious gold-digger, who needs little persuasion from her drunken on-the-make brother, Lescaut, in a Paris that only recognises money, an obscene gap between rich and poor.
High on love, wealth and opulence, Cuthbertson literally throws herself into the role, trusting her true love to be the safety net. Her body language changes with each scene, from ingénue, to confident courtesan, to shorn humiliated criminal. Her responsiveness to Massenet’s music, ranging from the virginal to the lyrically melancholic to the lush oriental and the ecstatic, is evident in the tiniest of gestures.
In the final scene, close to death, she dances with startling abandon. Polunin does not let her down. Triple turns in the air, and he catches her firmly every time. Draped over his arm like a rag doll, her dying burst of fire dims and he is left bereft.
The pairing is sensational: together they are beautiful in line, in emotion, in daring, hearts as one. They compliment each other in an unusual softness, mirror images, a surprise romantic coupling. They have eyes only for each other in the love-at-first-sight and bedroom first act. Kenneth MacMillan’s difficult choreography, not well received in 1974, is overcome by a couple drawing strength from each other.
Unpredictable Ukrainian rough diamond Polunin turns out to be a polished one after all, and gives a mature tender performance. One hears of his youthful—he is only twenty-one—champing at the bit, his burning of the candle at both ends, but he delivers as Manon’s lover Des Grieux, a young man faithful to the end.
In the first act he is plunged immediately into an adagio solo that exposes weaknesses in the best, and Polunin passes the test. The love duets are to die for. Exceptional togetherness. She seduces with her grace, conscious of her power, which proves a dangerous thing, he with a concentrated loyalty.
In act two, Manon turns her eyes away from Des Grieux, however beseechingly he circles the demi-monde salon of whores and gaming tables. Whores dance, card sharps play, rich men nuzzle pretty girls—MacMillan does not pull his punches—but like Des Grieux we can’t take our eyes off Manon pleasuring Monsieur G M at a side table. He has bought her, bedecked her, and is showing off his new acquisition. Even off-centre she draws the gaze.
Manon has succumbed to furs, jewels and the pampered life, so the poor student must cheat at cards to win her. Lescaut (José Martin), the amoral agent of the tragedy, pimping his own sister out of greed, leads him astray, but it is Lescaut who perishes for his sins, shot by a vengeful Monsieur G M like the rat he is.
Tease, courtesan, thief and convict, Manon takes Des Grieux to the ends of the earth, the penal colonies, where more male abuse awaits. In a folie d’amour he commits murder for her.
A pure, undying love cannot save her in these venal times. The final pas de deux as her life ebbs away brings lumps to throats and roars from the audience. And a mound of flowers at Cuthbertson’s feet.
A triumph for both. But one can see the demands it has made etched on their faces—swept away by their roles, a tour de force, a marathon of dance—they did it. Gary Avis (Manon’s gaoler in 2008), a fine actor, as Monsieur G M, a tall and commanding presence, also raises the game.
One of those nights that everything comes right, casting, dancing, atmosphere, even that spurt of blood from Lescaut’s chest. L’Abbé Prévost’s eighteenth century Manon Lescaut has captivated many artists—Dumas in his La dame aux camélias had Marguerite owning a copy of this book. Little did I know, studying the text at university half a lifetime ago, that it would lead to such a memorable evening.
In rep till 26th November 2011
Reviewer: Vera Liber