Review: Royal Ballet in Manon at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 4 June 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 27 April 2011

Royal Ballet 'Manon' Steven McRae & Leanne Benjamin. Photo: Johan Persson. 2011

Reviewed: 21 April 2011

The hype that recently welcomed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as the first new full-length ballet to premiere at the Royal Opera House for sixteen years brings into sharper focus the three golden decades (between Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella in 1948 and Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling in 1978) during which time the Royal Ballet introduced at least half a dozen new full-evening classic works into the permanent repertoire of world ballet.

Ironically, MacMillan’s Manon was not well received by the critics at its premiere in 1974 but it is now performed all over the world to great acclaim and this captivating ballet of love and death that transports us from a Parisian Bordello to the swamps of Louisiana is now the most brilliant jewel in the Royal Ballet’s treasure chest of homemade classics.

Such gems require great care and attention to retain their lustre; and in the case of a living art like ballet, not just to maintain them as they were but to finesse and improve while remaining true to the choreographer’s original vision. Here the patchwork quilt of Massenet’s music has been re-orchestrated for these performances by Conductor Martin Yates; providing, for example, a notable difference in the Gaol scene of the 3rd Act. Over the years, new dancers learn the roles, imbibing the essence through the coaching of those who went before and learning from other dancers who have performed the ballet for many years. Such a combination was thrown together late in the day to provide the lead partnership for the opening night of this season’s Manon, with the debutant, Steven McRae (a late replacement for Ed Watson, recovering from a shoulder operation), appearing alongside the Royal Ballet’s apparently ageless (yet most senior) ballerina, Leanne Benjamin, to create an all-Australian lead.

Benjamin is an extraordinary performer; tiny, frail even, yet with a resolute inner strength and charismatic ebullience. She is so ‘under the skin’ of the title role that one forgets the choreography and is simply absorbed into her story of a woman split into two personas. One in love with life and the pleasures and riches it can bring; the other in love with love, in the form of a chance encounter with the dashing student, Des Grieux. This brilliant dance actress uses decades of experience to dissolve away the years and appear convincingly at ease as the fragile young woman whom we first encounter on her journey to enter the convent. The fact of a 21-year age difference between the two dancers becomes impossible to believe. But, neither was I convinced by McRae’s characterisation in either of the first two Acts, where he was largely anonymous amongst the throng of the action in both the courtyard and party scenes. The role of Des Grieux was made on Anthony Dowell, the defining danseur noble of his generation, and McRae does not conform to the physical stereotype of the leading male dancer in classical ballet. What he does, however, is dance with an irrepressible technique, which he applies with intelligence: he made the difficult adagio solo of Act I – with its complex lines, arabesques, balances and slow turns – seem easy but it struck me that his superb technique was helped by cleverly cutting corners in the established choreography. McRae’s debut in the role was supposed to come later in the run (partnering Roberta Marquez) but performing the role alongside Benjamin provided him with the best possible masterclass. It was certainly notable how his confidence and projection improved as the performance progressed with the pair giving truly impassioned and emotional portrayals in the final act.

Experience prevailed throughout the rest of the cast with a number of performances showing the rich patina of multiple airings: Ricardo Cervera as Manon’s devious brother, Lescaut; Laura Morera reprising the role of his mistress for the umpteenth time; Gary Avis as the vicious gaoler; Christopher Saunders as the bored, lascivious Monsieur GM; and Genesia Rosato as the Madame of the hôtel particulier. As the new boy, Steven McRae took time to find his way, thus only reinforcing my prejudice not to see him as an ideal Des Grieux; but in his fine delivery of the last scenes, I feel that he may yet still convince me to redefine my image of the danseur noble.

The Royal Ballet dance Manon at the Royal Opera House on 21, 28, 30 April; 4, 7, 9, 10, 12, 23, 26, 31 May and 1 & 4 June

What’s On