The Royal Ballet are on top form and Natalia Osipova is the ultimate dancer and actor as Manon

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Koen Kessels (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Ross MacGibbon) from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 3.2.2024. (JPr)

Reece Clarke (Des Grieux) and Natalia Osipova (Manon) © Andrej Uspenski

Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Music – Jules Massenet
Designer – Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting designer – Jacopo Pantani
Staging – Laura Morera
Rehearsal director – Christopher Saunders

Manon – Natalia Osipova
Des Grieux – Reece Clarke
Lescaut – Alexander Campbell
Monsieur G.M. – Gary Avis
Lescaut’s Mistress – Mayara Magri
Madame – Elizabeth McGorian
The Gaoler – Lukas B. Brændsrød
Beggar Chief – Taisuke Nakao
Courtesans – Yuhui Choe, Melissa Hamilton, Sae Maeda, Amelia Townsend
Gentlemen – Luca Acri, Calvin Richardson, Joseph Sissens
Clients – Harry Churches, David Donnelly, Giacomo Rovero, Christopher Saunders, Thomas Whitehead

The first performance of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon was on 7 March 1974, with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell creating the roles of Manon and Des Grieux; so now in 2024 it is (obviously) celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. I first saw it in December 1980 with Lesley Collier and Stephen Jefferies and a number of times since then including a (first) cinema showing in 2014 and subsequently in 2018.

There was a lot of interesting background information in the films and interviews we were shown to accompany this live relay but what I still remember is how we heard in 2014 from Lady Deborah MacMillan, the choreographer’s widow, who said she was often asked who her favourite Manon was and she got so fed up that jokily she answered how all the movement was ‘worked out on me at home in the nude’ … and it was published!

Originating in Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel Manon is a teenage woman who cannot decide between the genuine love of the penniless Des Grieux, or the loveless luxury offered by Monsieur G.M., a rich roué. The setting is eighteenth-century Paris where it seems people were either rich and powerful, taking a particularly keen interest in the lives of the women on the fringes of respectable society, or poor and destitute with criminality or prostitution the only escape routes from their plight. It is literally a riches-to-rags story which is mirrored in the late Nicholas Georgiadis’s designs with an almost ever-present backdrop of rags which contextualises all the opulence and finery we will see before it, at least in the first two acts. Even then there are beggars scrounging money where they can and courtesans parading around and available to the man with the most to offer.

This three-act narrative ballet begins in the bustling eighteenth-century courtyard of an inn near Paris and ends in the murky swamps of Louisiana. Along the way there is everything you would find in a modern soap opera, though with better dancing! There is stealing, illicit love, jealousy, murder, wrongful conviction and sex, consensual or otherwise. This rather misogynistic, somewhat sordid, uncomfortably dark material clearly greatly appealed to Sir Kenneth MacMillan. There is a far-from-happy ending, and it is unlike many popular fairytale ballets of the sort the newcomers I overheard in the Cineworld Basildon sounded as if they had been expecting Manon to be.

A major weakness remains the score and although Manon is choreographed to music by Massenet – originally arranged by Leighton Lucas in collaboration with Hilda Gaunt and subsequently re-orchestrated by Martin Yates – it does not include a note from Massenet’s opera of the same name. (At least that is what I believe despite Petroc Trelawny’s suggestion that it might do during the broadcast.) Undoubtedly Massenet did write some lovely melodies, and whilst the arrangers shrewdly incorporated one of his best-known ones, the lovely and reflective Élégie, into each of the three acts – as I have suggested before – it remains a strangely Classic FM-like musical potpourri. The first two acts have some Spanish-sounding moments whilst Act III cranks up the romantic ecstasy when something much more poignant would be better.

I have read how the soaring music at the end of the ballet might reflect triumph (of true love?) over adversity. However, Manon’s demise is so harrowing we should viscerally experience the use and sexual abuse Manon has suffered from most of the men in her life – from her brother Lescaut to her Gaoler – in what we both see and hear. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House gave a wonderful account of the overly lush Massenet score. I thought the conducting of their music director Koen Kessels was beautifully judged and there was a particularly evocative cello solo between scenes in Act III from Christopher Vanderspar.

I remember reading how a dancer must show Manon as ‘an ingénue in Act I, queen of the demimonde in Act II, or destitute convict in Act III’. Most of this – as you would expect – Natalia Osipova did very well; her acting and dancing was natural and unforced, with a pliant torso, fluid arms and crisp leg and footwork. Her chopped hair and ragged clothes in the final act made her unrecognisable from the woman luxuriating in the furs and jewels she was wearing in Act II. Whether revelling in being alone with Des Grieux in his bedroom or having to endure the brutal rape by Lukas B. Brændsrød’s lascivious Gaoler at the Louisiana penal colony, Osipova’s interpretation became increasingly compelling, and I could not take my eyes off her. Her final act was startling as never have I seen a Manon so broken and exhausted as she was from its outset and her final death scene was deeply, deeply, moving.

This of course was helped by some close-ups in Ross MacGibbon’s camerawork which revealed what an astounding dancer and actor Osipova is. That shocking depiction of rape in Act III is the most dramatically plausible scene in the entire ballet which elsewhere has too many reminders of the gambolling harlots and townspeople of MacMillan’s 1965 Romeo and Juliet.

Reece Clarke (Des Grieux) and Natalia Osipova (Manon) © Andrej Uspenski

In 2024 I have my doubts about the strength in depth of The Royal Ballet principals, though I do not get to see them now as much as I once did. Reece Clarke is Osipova’s preferred partner for the last five years it seems. Whilst Des Grieux is undoubtedly a difficult role which combines significant technical challenges with complicated partnering and believable acting; Clarke managed only two out of those three well. Regardless of how impassioned he was as Manon died at the end of the ballet, too often Clarke stopped acting when he needed to dance instead of allowing it to inform his movement precisely as it does with Osipova. The discrepancy in their heights obviously seems to work in their partnership, though throughout the ballet the taller Clarke was more prince than impoverished student.

An interesting matchup would have been Osipova with Alexander Campbell who was outstanding as Manon’s conniving, wheeler-dealer brother Lescaut who is willing to make a profit by pimping his sister. (In this current revival Campbell dances Des Grieux with Francesca Hayward as Manon.) Lescaut is a thoroughly despicable character who gets an oddly comic drunk scene in Act II – which seems to come from an entirely different ballet – as he attempts to partner Mayara Magri, who was equally excellent as his sultry mistress. (Lescaut also later gets to engage in a swordfight, also lifted straight from MacMillan’s earlier Romeo and Juliet.)

Gary Avis was the aristocrat Monsieur G. M. and his haughty mien made it very clear he was used to getting whatever he wanted. With Manon – the woman he desired and cynically paid for – he lost control and could hardly keep his hands off her with all the suitably distasteful-looking pawing and foot fetishism. Elizabeth McGorian also stood out in the smaller roles as a suitably elegant, yet unscrupulous, Madame.

Manon remains a richly textured ballet, with those dancers around the fringes of the stage being nearly as important as the principals in creating a proper background for the central tale of the two doomed lovers. The company are on top form, no one appeared to switch off and all danced with admirable commitment and superb unanimity of movement in several ensemble moments.

Jim Pritchard

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