It is difficult to imagine that Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, now a staple in the repertoire of well over twenty companies worldwide, was given a decidedly mixed reception when it was first performed in 1973; it now seems absolutely right, a perfect balance of the intimate and the larger scale, the downfall of an amoral yet adorable heroine and her obsessed lover set against the seediness of France during the Régence. And it is good to report that given by The Royal Ballet, one can witness it better and more authentically performed than anywhere else. This most recent revival demonstrates that, in this particular work, and in the realm of dance narrative as a whole, this ensemble remains untouchable, such is the depth of understanding of the detail and nuance of successful story-telling through the medium of dance.
Certainly, The Royal Ballet fielded a strong cast on opening night, the danseuse du moment Francesca Hayward replacing an ailing Laura Morera in the title role. Hayward brings a freshness to the role, and is particularly convincing as the Act One ingénue, easily influenced by her chancer of a brother Lescaut. As a dancer, her glory is her upper body, a pliant torso and expressive arms, curling and twisting like art nouveau tendrils. In pas de deux, she is a warm and voluptuous partner, even if she does not yet consistently hold the stage in solo work. In the Act Two brothel scene, she was a curiously bland courtesan, not, as yet, radiating the enjoyment of her acquired luxury nor the sexuality which all the men find so irresistible. In Act Three, however, as a deportee to Louisiana, she convinces utterly, her body wracked with pain and exhaustion, barely able to place one foot in front of another, easy prey to the lascivious gaoler; her ultimate death in the bayou was a sorry and pathetic affair. Hayward will, almost certainly, deepen her interpretation as the years progress and achieve greater consistency in her portrayal of Manon’s complex character.
Des Grieux was the impressive Federico Bonelli, fifteen years a Principal with the company, and showing no signs of letting up, a portrait, no doubt, in his attic at home! He has danced this role many times, and his experience, allied with his natural stage intelligence, make for a rounded and well-nuanced portrayal of the man who will sacrifice everything for Manon. He maintains a high standard of dancing, not least in the fiendish first solo which exposes any failings of technique in its controlled adagio. Bonelli’s line remains aristocratic, his placement elegant and considered, while his partnering is exemplary. In the final, desperate pas de deux, he throws Hayward hither and thither with abandon, increasingly desperate to delay the inevitable which, when it comes, is excruciating to him.
Not to be outdone, Alexander Campbell was a virtuoso Lescaut, tossing off his first, explosive solo with arrogant virtuosity, his drunken capering of Act Two never over-baked and genuinely funny. Campbell exudes character and personality and could well make for an interesting Des Grieux; it is to be regretted that he will not have the chance to essay that role during this run. Claire Calvert was his mistress in a finely drawn and confidently danced performance – this is a young artist who consistently draws the eye with her characterful dancing and a welcome feminine generosity in her stage presence.
Manon provides many vignettes to the company members, and it was reassuring to see that many of the opportunities were not missed as the ballet progressed. In what was luxury casting, James Hay, an admirably fine and stylish dancer tempered his natural nobility to give a zingy Beggar Chief while Gary Avis repeated his sleazy Gaoler, a natural bully and sexual predator, harvesting from the fresh delivery of exiled prostitutes from France. Perhaps the natural tendency in ballet to prettify things has been allowed to creep into this revival – one sensed that some of the sleazier and more shocking aspects of this work, not least in the cavorting at the brothel, were somewhat toned down.
The orchestra was in lively form under Martin Yates, even if the engaging pot-pourri of Jules Massenet (not a note of which comes from his opera of this subject) which comprises the score continues to be given in his own recent re-orchestration, which seems to highlight the joins between the numbers rather than present them in a seamless whole. His insertion of a mournful solo after Act Three’s first scene is unnecessary and far too long, the stage waiting in darkness until its end. Elsewhere, the romantic swell of the original orchestration is replaced with something altogether lighter and less satisfying.