Royal Danish Ballet
Copenhagen, Royal Theatre
11 March 2014
The Royal Danish Ballet’s production of Manon is a rather different affair from the Covent Garden original which I fled from sometime in the 1990s and have never revisited. The new designs by Mia Stensgaard, commissioned for this company’s first performances in 2003 (and seen in the UK when English National Ballet borrowed them a few years ago) do away with scenery, using only a few moveable flats at the back of the stage: I think that’s a great improvement, and even better is the new orchestration of the score which Deborah MacMillan now insists on. Martin Yates, the arranger, has almost entirely eliminated the treacly sentimentality of the previous version and the whole piece now seems lighter as a result.
What really persuaded me to try the ballet again was the RDB’s casting. Alban Lendorf was of course an obvious Des Grieux, but the choice of Alexandra Lo Sardo for Manon was much more of a surprise. She’s quietly racking up an impressive list of principal roles – I saw her as Teresina in Napoli only a couple of weeks ago and she has already done Aurora and Sugar Plum, Terpsichore in Apollo, Robbins’ Other Dances, the Pupil in The Lesson – quite a range. It was the memory of her performance in Bournonville’s Konservatoriet, though, that made me want to see her in Manon: perfectly demure on the surface but with something about her glance that suggested she might be far from the innocent she appeared – exactly how I imagine Manon in her schooldays.
Both she and Lendorf lived up to my hopes. This was only their third performance and of course there is a lot more for them to discover in their roles, but I found their complete commitment and identification with their characters was already very rewarding. Actually it’s a pleasure to watch Lendorf in anything these days: following his development has been one of the great pleasures of the years I’ve been writing about the company, and his acting is improving all the time to complement the integrity and the beautifully silky buoyancy of his dancing. Maybe he could stretch out those Anthony Dowell arabesques at the beginning of his first solo a little more, and he needs to punch home the key scene of his corruption a bit harder; Lo Sardo, similarly, could show us a bit more clearly the tenderness of her feelings for Des Grieux in the early scenes. But she was completely convincing in her covetousness: her greedy eyes shone as brightly as the diamonds that tempted her. That, I was expecting; what took me by surprise was the quality of her acting in the last act – a broken sparrow, with all her spirit and ambition and conceit destroyed. This was new territory for her and promises well for the future.
Benjamin Buza, as Manon’s brother, has the strength of character and the dancing skills the role needs: what he lacks so far is the wit to make us like this rogue, however unwillingly, and to drive the big pas de deux with his mistress. She, Holly Dorger, looked to have been cast for her strong technique rather than her acting and was altogether too nice. Nikolaj Hübbe was originally announced for the villainous Monsieur GM, but presumably changed his mind: his replacement was Cédric Lambrette, who is emerging as a talented character dancer and gave a very well-judged account of the role, younger than it is often played, coldly lecherous and very creepy. Mads Blangstrup was the Gaoler – luxury casting indeed – evil personified, in a black wig.
And the ballet? Although the Danes make a good case for it, they don’t change my view: the bits MacMillan is good at – the various pas de deux and, especially, the pas de trois for Manon, her brother and Monsieur GM – are very powerful, and the rest is just padding and deeply, painfully tedious. Cut down by half it would make twice the impression.