The Royal Ballet returns with Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon (1974). It is now a staple, a money-spinner, but it was not ever thus; Manon had a mixed reception on creation, and for many seasons it failed to set the box-office alight. That finally came to an end a few years ago with the ‘new generation’ of Manons: Sylvie Guillem, Darcey Bussell and Tamara Rojo pricking the public’s interest. One can see why ballerinas are keen to invest themselves in the eponymous anti-heroine: Manon comprises numerous contradictions and questions in her character, rich pickings for a dance-actress.
This revival has at its centre a Manon from the previous generation, the sublime Leanne Benjamin. She is a remarkable dance-actress, triumphant in MacMillan’s tortured heroines: Young Girl in The Invitation (when will we ever see that superb ballet again?), Irina, Anastasia, Juliet, Young Woman in The Judas Tree and, of course, Manon. She is in her mid-forties, but I can state unequivocally that she entirely convinces as a teenaged Manon in that first scene in the coaching-inn courtyard in aspect, movement quality and acting. She goes on to create a fully three-dimensional character, safe in the knowledge of the role, confident in the delivery of the big numbers, telling in the small details that experience and innate dramatic intelligence give her. Hers is a superb portrayal, exploring Manon’s many facets, a diamond found in the rough and doomed to be lost again in the bayous of Louisiana. She is complicit in her brother’s pimping, at once amazed and enamoured of the riches that whoredom bring her, yet we keep seeing flashes, not of guilt, for Manon is not so much immoral as amoral, but genuine affection for Des Grieux, her hapless lover whom she drags down into the murky underworld of brothels, gambling and violence.
Benjamin’s breathtaking portrayal was aided, complemented and enhanced by Steven McRae’s unscheduled debut as Des Grieux. I have admired McRae for some time, but never seen a deeper side to him than this; his extraordinary technique and bright, sunny stage persona have dazzled and, I suspect, hidden his dramatic talents (he was at last back in ballet tights rather than having to tap-dance his way as Mad Hatter through the farrago that is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). His Romeo in recent times showed that he has another, darker side, but it is his Des Grieux, fully-formed as a portrayal at this his first essay, which shows the true quality of his acting and evident thought about character. His Des Grieux is boyish, a true innocent, willingly ensnared by Manon and then dragged into the mire of corruption, unable to resist being sucked down ever deeper. His superlative technical command impresses from the first – his solo in the first scene is a paean to Anthony Dowell, the first Des Grieux, who had a seemingly unnatural ability to turn slowly, to dance ‘off centre’ and to weave his steps into a seamless arc of movement. McRae evokes Dowell in his technical command, the solo singing with adolescent infatuation, an unbroken adage of indescribable beauty. From there, he was not only in full command of the choreography (his brothel solo was wondrous in its control), but he demonstrated superb partnering in those stunning pas de deux
which mark each of the scenes. Additionally, his portrayal was consistent, full of small, telling details which flesh out a character; I noticed for the first time Des Grieux’s high moralistic refusal to cheat at cards to be convinced only by the sight of Manon in the arms of Monsieur G. M. There is no higher praise for me to state that the precision and intelligence of his acting reminded me forcibly of Johan Kobborg. Benjamin and McRae’s final pas de deux
in the Louisiana swamp was superlative in every way – she blindly desperate, he blindly hopeful. Her death sent shivers down the spine.
Benjamin and McRae make for a handsome couple, proportions complementary, both of rare artistic intelligence. Not to be outdone, Ricardo Cervera and Laura Morera as Manon’s brother Lescaut and his mistress were on a par; indeed when the ballet was new-minted Dowell and David Wall, the first Lescaut, swapped roles at different performances, and seeing this current pairing, I wondered if the leading quartet could not (should not – Morera is due to dance Manon at later performances with Federico Bonelli as her Des Grieux) do the same. Readers will know how much I rate Morera, a superlative Ashton dancer in a company where there are, alas, few, but also excellent in MacMillan. She makes vital sense of the Mistress’s solos, bringing pliancy of torso, sensuality of movement, quick-fire footwork and intelligent musicality to the role. She acts with refinement – the play of many emotions when she is hit by Lescaut and then shown a tumbril of whores bound for deportation was detailed, deep and telling; she shines. Cervera too possesses both speed of movement and superb musicality – he knows when to move on, when to hold back, when to pause for a split second, all in the service of character and choreography. He is a jokingly cruel Lescaut, a handsome charmer who smiles his way into your purse and your bed, ready to swindle and pimp without compunction. His ‘drunken’ pas de deux
with Morera was both finely judged and unexaggerated – like Cervera himself.
I am glad to report that elsewhere all was well too – this is a handsome revival, with the company dancing with both verve and care for the movement – the set pieces were well executed, support for the four principals exemplary. Of note Paul Kay’s lovable urchin Beggar Chief, who delivered his solo extremely well, Jonathan Howell’s detailed Old Gentleman, the first of Manon’s 'victims’ in the coaching inn, all painful bunions and toothless lust, and the assembled brothel clients who pass Manon around as a treasure from a prized cabinet of curiosities. Assembled whores (MacMillan’s best and least gratuitous) were suitably boisterous and sluttish, presided over by Genesia Rosato’s blowsy and increasingly sozzled Madame. Gary Avis was a brutish and sadistic Gaoler in New Orleans, a callous user of women, a rapist, who forces himself on the exhausted Manon; Christopher Saunders is a world-weary deviant Monsieur G. M. in search of some new pleasure, a sneering bully in silk.
Martin Yates conducted with freshness and vigour, but what is not mentioned in the programme is that this was the first hearing of his new orchestration of Leighton Lucas and Hilda Gaunt’s assembled score of Massenet (if not a note from the opera). Yates has freshened the sound somewhat, lightening, by the sound of it, the violins and violas, and bringing both brass and woodwind to the fore. The result is lighter in many places, although percussion and brass are still used to bring weight to the climactic moments of the pas de deux
. Once or twice, the music was a little thin to support what was happening in the danced performance, but these were isolated moments, and generally, he has succeeded to bring out the Frenchness of the score and to play down what were rather more symphonic episodes in the old orchestration. It is too early to tell how much of an improvement this is, and his chosen nimble tempos fit the scoring well, but that is perhaps only achievable with a quartet of principals as fleet of foot as those on first night. On this occasion the Royal Opera House Orchestra played with care, precision and artistry – especial mention to the principal cello, who played the newly inserted interlude between the first and second scenes of Act Three so meltingly.