Review: Royal Ballet - Manon - Royal Opera House

Performance: In rep 26 September - 1 November 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 29 September 2014

The Royal Ballet - Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux and Marianela Núñez as Manon in 'Manon'. Photo: Alice Pennefather, ©ROH 2014

Performance reviewed: 26 September

The 40th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon – one of the mainstays of the Royal Ballet’s home-grown repertoire – has been recognised a little late. The gala premiere of MacMillan’s ballet came in March 1974 (with Antoinette Sibley in the title role and Anthony Dowell as her young lover, Des Grieux) and so to be strictly accurate this anniversary is being celebrated at the beginning of the following season. I mention this since the matter of off-kilter timing could be taken to illustrate a performance that was never quite in sync.

MacMillan’s ballet captures Manon’s brief and tawdry life by distilling the essence of Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novelette ( L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut ) into three short acts which evidence theft, prostitution, greed, deception, murder, exile and rape before the exhausted Manon expires in a Louisiana swamp. It rarely fails to establish an emotional charge but on this occasion the battery was flat due to an unfortunate lack of spark between the leading couple, Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli.

Manon and Des Grieux’s love story is carried through several set pieces of dance, beginning with his courtyard declaration of love in a delicate solo of tricky balances, turns and arabesques – here audibly sullied by Bonelli’s squeaky shoes – and continuing through several duets that expose the passionate journey of their romance, played out against the avarice of Manon’s pimp brother, Lescaut, fuelling her own predilection for diamond jewellery and fur coats. Nuñez and Bonelli try hard to convince us of their sincerity but the natural flow of being seamlessly caught up in the music and the moment, which evidences all the great performances, is largely missing. Instead, we got a “safe” performance: one where Bonelli, in particular, appears content to do everything correctly and securely, but with a caution that is inhibitive to the dramatic passion that should exist in his every movement and expression. It is a pity because he has the physical presence – and in particular, the length of leg and strength of arabesque – to be an exceptional interpreter of Des Grieux. He just needs to let go.

Nuñez is a consummate performer but even the greatest of dancers has choreography and roles that don’t fit them so well and this is the one for her (in fact, MacMillan choreography in general is not her strongest suit). Manon is a complex character, strong enough to deceive men for money but so weak as to be carried along on the waves blown by her nasty big brother: her saleability being demonstrated in two memorable pieces of MacMillan expressionism when she is first “hired out” through being passed between Lescaut and Monsieur G.M. (a suitably oily Christopher Saunders) at the end of Act 1 and then – in the next scene – between the various clients of the hôtel particulier in one of MacMillan’s greatest of many great coups de theatre. Nuñez is best at these times of paid-for quiescence, playing the role weakly. Her Manon is a woman uncaringly and impassively carried along by events, in which case everything is subdued, including the heights of her passion for Des Grieux and therein lies the rub. When Manon dies in that swamp, we grieve not for the tragedy of a young love ended prematurely but for one that didn’t seem to get going at all.

The sights and sounds of 18th century Paris and the arrival of transported prostitutes at the docks in New Orleans are evocatively captured at both ends of the social spectrum, from decadent glory to stinking cesspit. The company’s ranks of artists in the corps de ballet enrich and enliven proceedings with robust characterisations of townspeople and courtesans and in their strong uniformity of dancing (especially in Acts 2 and 3). Ricardo Cervera was an outstanding and charismatic interpreter of Lescaut, although his death scene seemed to court an Oscar nomination, continuing even as the curtain fell. Laura Morera was also excellent in the role of Lescaut’s mistress and Gary Avis provided an effectively hideous cameo as the predatory and abusive gaoler.

Despite this excellence throughout the supporting cast – and in the orchestra pit – I was left with a feeling that this showing of Manon lacked the impact of past performances. The swampy ending only works when there is enough undiluted passion between the players to draw attention away from the lacklustre means of setting the scene through copious amounts of dry ice and a strange curtain of streamers, looking like the entrance to the kitchen in a downmarket kebab shop rather than successfully conveying the intention of smoky, wetland mangrove swamps.

We have another 17 performances of the old warhorse still to come, which is a reasonable – if not belated – way to celebrate 40 years, but I suggest that it may be in need of a little rest and recuperation thereafter. It will, however, be fascinating to see new interpreters of the leading roles, notably rising star, Francesca Hayward’s debut in the title role [on 30 September]. Maybe there is new life yet to be breathed into a production that has perhaps become too familiar.

In rep until 1 November
Full details & casting:

The performance on 16 October (with Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli) will be relayed live to cinemas across the world:

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

Photos: Alice Pennefather, ©ROH 2014

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