MacMillan’s Manon Returns to The Royal Ballet and is Let Down by the Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Massenet, ManonDancers 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) 

Sarah Lamb & Vadim Muntagirov in Manon © Alice Pennefather

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!

Jim Pritchard

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11 thoughts on “MacMillan’s <i>Manon</i> Returns to The Royal Ballet and is Let Down by the Music”

  1. Interesting…for me the music is one of the best aspects of this ballet. The themes are so beautiful and haunting and where they occasionally seem to contradict the mood of the story (such as the rather romantic score during the gaoler scene) I think the contrast makes an unusual and powerfully dramatic impact. All too often musical scores seem to assume that audiences have to be led by the nose – i.e.” I think this must be a sad part because the music is so mournful”. And I certainly don’t recognise your description of the death scene music being at odds with the story.

    I agree largely about the principal leads in the filmed performance, but the RB does have some great dancer-actors who have put in tremendous performances this run of Manon – I can attest to Hayward/Bonelli and Takada/Campbell who were brilliant, seen live. I think the RB is tending to choose the wrong cast to film at the moment.

    • Thank you so much for this and agreeing in part with me. I do appreciate all opinions because everything I write is my personal and honest view – right or wrong. I have listened again to that closing music with eyes shut and perhaps see a galleon buffeted by the winds and sailing on the Spanish Main and not a death scene in some swamps. I entirely accept you hear something else and that is the glory of music. I have been there in the theatre for the RB this season for a couple of splendid performances and see much ballet elsewhere. I know they have indeed some great dancer-actors but I still don’t think RB is currently overly-blessed with them, however excellent they are as dancers. Please continue to enjoy all you see with them!

  2. I really don’t understand why the RB didn’t film Osipova or Hayward, because they were incredible dance actors. It almost seems like it’s a Nuñez/Lamb/Cuthbertson rotation, and it shouldn’t be about seniority but about who is best for the role.

    • Many thanks. I will not add to this except to say that Sarah Lamb is scheduled for the ‘Mayerling’ in cinemas in October with Steven MacRae who also is well represented in these transmissions and should reappear as soon as ‘La Bayadère’ in November when audiences do not get to see the exceptional cast that opens this run of performances. There maybe a reason for this who knows?

  3. Thank goodness l am not an experienced aficionado of music and ballet. My friend and I watched ‘Manon’ for the first time last week and were blessed by the beauty and skill of the performers and orchestra. Thank you for making it possible for the masses such as us to be able to have this amazing experience. We are so grateful.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your enjoyment of ‘Manon’ with readers of S&H and I hope no review of my could ever spoil your memories of that.

  4. I was recently in London for a live performance of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in which the young couple was danced by Lamb and Muntagirov quite wonderfully. Sad to say Steven MacRae was not able to dance due to injury. However, I was astounded to learn that Lamb would be cast as Manon in the Cinema performances in the USA come June.

    Previously I had seen her mostly in snatches of film on YouTube and admired her work, and one brief turn as the tsar’s mistress in ‘Anastasia’ at Covent Garden was charmingly executed.. But I have never seen her display grand passion of the sort called for in MacMillan’s scrumptious ballets on the screen.. I do agree with you that it is sad not to see other fine ROH ballerinas who have more of a gift for facial expression in the Cinema schedule lead roles.

    However, I think the camera is at fault a lot of the time. The audience is not allowed to savor the choreographer’s priority to produce passion through movement and music on a big stage. Too many close-ups way too often cut off feet and display dispassion, heavy breathing, wrinkles, sweat, costume flaws etc. that break into romance and audience involvement. Seeing two great dancers using the whole stage, even in an intimate encounter, beats seeing only one of them trying to exude emotion from the neck up, in my opinion. Audience distance at live performances covers up dramatic flaws to a great extent.

    • I could not agree more about the close-ups. It is a comment I have heard members of the cinema audiences make and I should do more to mention this myself although I have got the impression that the camerawork is pulling back a little more than it has done in the past. Thank you so much for taking the trouble to write to S&H.

    • It is great that you enjoyed it. Ballet as an art form needs to draw on all the disciplines it can during performance and that is not only that they speak with their bodies but actually ‘live’ the parts they dance if they have a story to tell. Too many dancers are just recreating the steps they have been told to perform and every time there must be more to ballet than that. I don’t know if it was different where you were but I am not young (my first ‘Manon’ at Covent Garden was in 1980!) but I was still one of the youngest in a packed cinema. Somehow ballet audiences need refreshing and more realistic ‘acting’ would be a start from some dancers. Not that I want anyone slappped(!!) but if you aim a slap at someone – as happens in this production – do not miss by a metre or more etc. etc. This is not confined to ballet of course as in a recent opera from the Met a character supposedly poured poison into a cup. There was nothing to pour and nothing to drink either.


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