United Kingdom Massenet, Manon: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Martin Yates. (conductor). Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon and broadcast to the Cineworld Basildon, Essex. 3.5.2018. (JPr)
Manon – Sarah Lamb
Des Grieux – Vadim Muntagirov
Lescaut – Ryoichi Hirano
Monsieur G.M. – Gary Avis
Lescaut’s Mistress – Itziar Mendizabal
Madame – Kirstin McNally
The Gaoler – Thomas Whitehead
Beggar Chief – James Hay
Courtesans – Fumi Kaneko, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Olivia Cowley, Mayara Magri
Orchestration – Martin Yates
Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Staging – Julie Lincoln and Christopher Saunders
Designs – Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting design – John B. Read
Whether it is a good or a bad thing I will leave others to decide, but famed choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 Manon is very much of its time and the more innocent pre-#MeToo world. The first two long acts are populated with prancing ‘women of ill repute’ happy to be the sexual playthings of rich older men before their downfall is rushed through in the mere 27 minutes of Act III. Manon Lescaut is content to be sexually exploited and during the ballet moves from being the convent bound ingénue, to courtesan in thrall to her ill-gotten gains, before her life spirals beyond her control. She ends up as a convict who dies in the swamps of Louisiana though still loved by Des Grieux who she had earlier treated so callously.
This three-act narrative ballet begins in the bustling courtyard of an inn near Paris and ends in those murky swamps. It was the sort of dark story that greatly appealed to Sir Kenneth MacMillan and had a far-from-happy ending compared to many popular fairy-tale ballets. It originated in Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel and Manon cannot decide between Des Grieux’s genuine love or the luxurious lifestyle offered by a rich roué. The people we see in MacMillan’s eighteenth-century Paris are either rich and powerful and take a keen interest in the lives of the demi-monde, or poor and destitute where criminality or prostitution is their only escape route. It seems everyone has a price and Manon seems predestined to be a loser whichever option she chooses. She eventually decides to flee Paris after a series of unfortunate events – including helping Des Grieux cheat to win money playing cards and then witnessing the death of her pimping brother Lescaut – leading to fatal consequences. Weak and emaciated, she dies in the arms of her lover.
MacMillan was advised to avoid the opera scores for Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Massenet’s own Manon but uses some of the latter’s lesser-known music. Leighton Lucas, a conductor, composer and former dancer, was tasked with compiling and orchestrating a selection of Massenet’s music and was assisted by company pianist Hilda Gaunt. This was reorchestrated in 2011 by Martin Yates who was conducting this performance. The major – and irredeemable – weakness of MacMillan’s Manon is this music. It is so totally inappropriate at times and rarely can you shut your eyes and imagine anything like you are seeing when you open them again. Undoubtedly Massenet wrote some lovely melodies, and one of his best-known tunes – the lovely and reflective Élégie – is incorporated into each of the three acts, and my thoughts have not altered that it is a strange Classic FM-like musical potpourri. In Act II there is too much Spanish and Arabian music and in Act III – as the convicts apparently wilt in the New Orleans heat and Manon is forced into performing a sex act on the Gaoler before eventually succumbing in the desert – the music ridiculously cranks up lush romantic ecstasy when something much more mournful is needed. Regardless of how unsuitable the score is, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded great through the cinema speakers.
From a previously shown interview with Lady Deborah MacMillan, the choreographer’s widow, it was revealing to hear again how an obsession with ice skating was the inspiration behind all the swirling pas de deux; Dame Darcey Bussell – herself a fine Manon but obviously awe-struck discussing the role with her – concurred that she had ‘literally to glide along the floor in every slide and every lift.’ This reminded me of an anecdote from a previous cinema transmission of this ballet when Lady MacMillan recalled how she was often asked who her favourite Manon was, and she got so fed up she answered as a joke that the movement was ‘all worked out on me at home in the nude’ and that was subsequently published!
MacMillan’s choreography has solos, duets, trios, complicated lower body work, extravagant lifts, all the rolling, dropping to floor and leaping of the townspeople and beggars, as well as, those ‘glides and slides’. For me the destitution, depravity and passion were all just a little too sanitised for 2018 (even if the Nicholas Georgiadis’s sets and some of his costumes are looking now rather appropriately dusty and seedy in close-up). However, Manon remains a richly textured ballet, with those dancers around the fringes of the stage being as important as the principals in creating a proper background for the central tale of the two doomed lovers. The company seems in reasonably good shape with no one switching off and everyone dancing with admirable commitment.
Unfortunately, the Royal Ballet is not blessed at the moment with a great depth of dance-actors despite a roster of fine dancers from a technical perspective. For instance, Ryoichi Hirano was only able to create Lescaut, the handsome charmer who – without compunction – pimps and swindles his way through life, in broad brush strokes. His Act II ‘drunken’ pas de deux with Itziar Mendizabal as his Mistress was over-exaggerated as if Hirano had never experienced being unable to handle his drink. As Manon, Sarah Lamb also never creates a completely three-dimensional character however confidently she delivers the big numbers. For me – and it may just be me – she is too glacial in her persona and often too studied in her movement. Her Manon seems to just go along with her brother’s pimping, is wide-eyed at the riches whoredom achieves for her, shows much joie de vivre in the opening two acts and some simmering sultry sexiness, but we see no real passion from her. There is plenty of angst in Act III, though not a feeling of any remorse or regret for her doomed hapless lover who she has dragged into a murky world of brothels, gambling and brutality.
The Royal Ballet’s best current male dancer, Vadim Muntagirov, was Des Grieux. He was suitably boyish, naïve and willing to be ensnared by Manon and then dragged down further and further into that corrupt underworld. Muntagirov displays his impressive talent from his first solo and his remarkable ability to turn ever-so slowly, dance ‘off centre’ and mould the steps into one totally natural – and seamless – arc of movement. Despite the famous Act I bedroom scene looking like a brother and sister just mucking around, Muntagirov’s partnering was as superb as expected. His final pas de deux with Lamb in the Louisianan swamp was equally impressive in every way – she clinging to life and he is just clinging to hope. Her death deserved to send shivers down my spine, but it didn’t because the luxuriant orchestral sonorities we heard were telling a different story entirely!
There were several other solid performances; of note, were James Hay’s cheeky, fleet-footed, Beggar Chief and especially Itziar Mendizabal who made a considerable impression as Lescaut’s louche and long-suffering Mistress. Jonathan Howell’s Old Gentleman, the first of Manon’s ‘victims’, was a well-crafted vignette. The assembled courtesans and harlots – often in the russet more memorable from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – were suitably playful, competitive and sluttish, presided over by Kristen McNally’s alluring Madame. Gary Avis’s preening intimidating Monsieur G. M. had no redeeming features whatsoever and was a sexual deviant in search all the new pleasures his wealth could get for him. Finally, Thomas Whitehead was the bullying and sadistic penal colony Gaoler, a callous user and abuser of women, who forces himself on the exhausted Manon and in 2018 this now seems a gratuitously unpleasant addition to the original story from MacMillan!
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