Each interpretation of Manon, the heroine of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, is different no matter how many times the production is given. The Royal Ballet’s Autumn season opener was the 283rd performance of Manon in the Opera House since the premiere in 1974. Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov, as Des Grieux, are not new to the roles and their understanding of the characters and the choreography has deepened with experience.
Lamb’s Manon is a dainty minx when she first steps into the courtyard of an inn on her way to a convent. Sweetly naive, she’s confident enough to shake off the groping hands of those who’d like to possess her. She falls for the adoring young man who finishes his introductory solo by kneeling at her feet. Muntagirov dares to take Des Grieux’s solo yearningly slowly, displaying the purity of his soul through his long balletic line. Who could resist those arabesques? Manon can’t help but succumb, as she will again in Act II.
In this first performance after the summer break, both performers showed careful respect for the choreography in their pas deux rather than appearing to be carried away by their emotions. Lamb’s Manon is still discovering the pleasures of first love when she is pimped by her brother to Monsieur GM. Lamb seems shell-shocked, fresh from the arms of her lover. In thrall to her brother, she lets him dictate how she should arouse the man who is prepared to pay for her services. All too soon, she colludes in being bought, secretly appalled at her passive acceptance. Other Manons swiftly relish the riches and scent the sexual bargaining power to come.
Ryoyichi Hirano, a bit too much of a villain as Lescaut in the first act, exerts his charm and comic timing in Act II, arriving at the hotel particulier orgy already well-oiled. Itziar Mendizabal as his hussy of a mistress resignedly puts up with his antics. She’s a toughie, unlike novice Manon. Elizabeth McGorian as the hostess pretends to be shocked at the goings on but is as squiffy as Lescaut by the time the party brawl erupts. I love her air of refined respectability, when she’s actually the madam of a brothel.
Manon is now fully aware of her status as Monsieur GM’s trophy mistress. Lamb shows that this Manon is playing a role, numb inside. Her sensual solo is an act, resulting in her being tossed around by the male punters, who think she’s having a great time. She’s a plaything, to be rewarded with the prize of a bracelet. When Des Grieux reproaches her, she conveys that she has to flaunt herself to keep her protector, and she’s not proud of the choice she has made.
Lamb’s is a subtle interpretation that sometimes goes against the grain of the choreography. Her Manon is essentially passive, letting things happen to her, rather than capriciously bringing about her downfall. She’s not sure who she really is. In the second bedroom scene, when she and Des Grieux are hiding out together, she’s trying out yet another role – that of the high-maintenance girlfriend, accustomed to being indulged. Does she truly love Des Grieux?
Muntagirov’s love is absolute. He expresses his faith in her through his exquisitely executed enveloppés during the pause in the party, agonising on his own while she makes up her mind to return to him. He’s so tender and trusting that you want to weep for him, and Manon.
In the last act, she recalls what has made her the person she now is. Her signature step is tentative as she arrives at the quayside, supported by Des Grieux. She is still passive, abused by the callous gaoler (Gary Avis) but finally fighting for her life as she and Des Grieux flee into the Louisiana swamp. She tries to defy her death, hurling herself at Des Grieux as if he might save her. He, too, has fought back by the end, killing the gaoler in a fury. As he howls over Manon’s inert body, Muntagirov has come a long way from his unobtrusive arrival as a divinity student to finding himself as a tragic hero.
The production, staged by Julie Lincoln, has been relit for this revival by Italian lighting designer Jacopo Pantani. The scenes are brighter and clearer, with less side-lighting on the dancers. The curtain walls of rags are the rear are more conspicuous – designer Nicholas Georgiadis’s reminder of the ‘cloth cesspit’ underlying the libertine opulence of 18th century Regency Paris. The cloth hanging behind the hotel particulier ballroom, however, now looks obtrusively shabby instead of deceptively velvety.
Luxury casting of secondary roles and soloists in the ensembles show that the Royal Ballet is in fine form after its Japanese tour and summer break. Many casts are yet to come, with debuts and appearances by Robert Bolle and David Hallberg, who has been appointed Principal Guest Artist for the rest of the Autumn/Winter season.