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Video Review

Kenneth MacMillan's ballet -
MANON With music of Jules MASSENET
Orchestrated and arranged for the ballet by Leighton LUCAS (1903-1982).
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
The Royal Ballet Covent Garden production of 1982
WARNER MUSIC/NVC ARTS 8573-84201-3 [130 mins]
Amazon UK  £14.99  Amazon US $26.99

Manon……………………Jennifer Penney
Des Grieux………………Anthony Dowell
Lescaut………………… David Wall
Monsieur G.M………… Derek Rencher

Kenneth MacMillan's ballet is a sumptuous production with two marvellous leads: the stunningly beautiful and supremely graceful Jennifer Penney as Manon and the athletic yet sensitive Anthony Dowell as Des Grieux. This tragic lyric ballet tells a moving tale of corrupted innocence in which the lovely Manon plunges from happiness to grief because of her fatal craving for luxury at the expense of love. As the Financial Times critic said at the time (1982) "With performances of this calibre…Manon remains an irresistible combination of immorality, opulence, suffering and tears."

The story of the ballet is based on the classic French novel, Manon Lescaut, by Abbé Prévost, or to give it its proper title, Mémoires et aventures d'un homme qualité. This hot blooded opus had already been used as a basis for an opera by Massenet with the same title as this ballet. A new recording of Massenet's opera with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna EMI 5 57005 2 was reviewed on this site recently. Furthermore Puccini was drawn to the subject and his opera Manon Lescaut, is probably the most celebrated of all the versions of the story. This site has an article with comparative reviews of all the available recordings of Puccini's Manon Lecaut including a review of a video of the Glyndebourne Opera's production. It is worth comparing the two operas and this ballet. All versions vary in detail. In passing it should be noted that Daniel Auber wrote another operatic version of Manon Lescaut in1856; and, furthermore there had been a ballet by Halévy based on the Prévost story .

But to the ballet. Those expecting Massenet's lovely music from his opera, Manon, will be disappointed for Leighton Lucas and MacMillan selected music with strong dancing rhythms from other of Massenet's works. Unfortunately the booklet tantalisingly does not identify the sources although I think I detected some material from the Scènes orchestral suites, for instance. The notes tell us that Leighton Lucas has orchestrated the music perhaps this includes re-orchestration for the ballet company's orchestra?

Costumes and scenery are a real feast for the eye.

Act I, Scene I is set in the courtyard of an inn. The action opens with the corps de ballet, as actresses, gentlemen and the demi-mode from Paris, performing a mix of dances in folk dance and Spanish styles before the arrival of the dissolute and corrupting Lescaut who, at first, dances in a formal 18th century mode belying his subsequent behaviour. Des Grieux enters, shy studious and tentative. A coach arrives with the lovely Manon who is greeted by her brother Lescaut. She immediately catches the attention of all the men. Some try to snatch her from the attentions of the old man who had accompanied her on the coach. Amongst them is Monsieur G.M. a wealthy treasury official. But Manon, who has stolen the old man's purse, elopes with Des Grieux. But Lescaut promises Monsieur G.M. that Manon will eventually accept his advances.

Scene II is set in Des Grieux's lodgings and in an extended and beautifully choreographed, romantic pas de deux, Manon and des Grieux celebrate their love. But when Des Grieux goes off on an errand, Lescaut appears with Monsieur G.M. who has brought with him sparkling jewels and a luxurious cloak. Manon is mesmerised by the luxury and in a seductive pas de trois she succombs to temptation and leaves with her new richer, but older lover. Lescaut remains behind and tries to persuade Des Grieux to allow the liaison 'saying' there will be wealth for all.

Act II, Scene I is set at a party given by Monsieur G.M. The action begins with various dances by the corps de ballet: coquettish movements by grisettes and more elegant measures by ladies of quality. Lescaut arrives drunk and in one of the highlights of the evening, he engages in an inebriated comic dance with his mistress. A downhearted Des Grieux mingles in the background until he sees Manon, sumptuously dressed and adorned with jewels, arriving on the arm of G.M. While G.M. relaxes at the card table she, seemingly oblivious, is passed around and manhandled by his lascivious cronies. Seen through the eyes of Des Grieux, this is a most disturbing dance; ghostly, almost murky music is used to underline Manon's degradation. Des Grieux tries to persuade Manon to leave with him but she will only agree if he takes more money from G.M. at cards But he is caught cheating at cards by G.M. Only after a sword fight in which Des Grieux wounds G.M., can Des Grieux and Manon slip away.

Scene II opens with another beguiling romantic pas de deux. This is interrupted by the arrival of G.M., with the police, thirsting for revenge. Manon is arrested as a prostitute and in a violent scuffle, a repentant Lescaut, now siding with his sister, is shot for his treachery by G.M.

Those who know the action of both Masenet's and Puccini's operas will have realised by now how much the plot of MacMillan's ballet differs. This is clearly to do with the special requirements of the medium of the ballet. For the action in Act III, MacMillan appears to have gone back to Prévost for inspiration. Whereas the inter-linking action between the acts of Puccini's opera is only indicated in programme notes, that drama best suites the ballet. Scene I is set in the Port of New Orleans and the disembarkation of the prisoners amongst whom is Manon (with Des Grieux who had accompanied her as the ship's cabin boy). The Scene opens with the Gaoler of the Penal Colony supervising this disembarkation. An affecting, dejected dance for the women prisoners precedes the arrival of Manon now in rags and hair in complete disarray. Nevertheless, her beauty is still tangible and it arrests the attention of the Gaoler and in a violent dance with Des Grieux he tries to seduce her away from him. Manon is then led away in chains leaving a distraught Des Grieux to follow. The brief Scene II sees the Gaoler trying to seduce a weary and unwilling Manon. As he tries to tempt her with a bracelet, he is killed by the newly arrived Des Grieux. The ill-fated lovers escape. The final Scene III finds them exhausted in the swamps of Louisiana. Ghostly visions of their earlier life in Paris haunt them and Manon sinks to the ground. A desperate Des Grieux tries to revive her but after a last sad, mournful pas de deux she expires.

There is no doubt that this production has its longueurs, particularly in Act III, despite MacMillan's inventions, and especially after all the glitter of the first two acts. Nevertheless, this is delightful evening's entertainment and the music, although rather superficial, is charming enough.

Ian Lace

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