Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Manon (orch and arr by Leighton Lucas) for Kenneth MacMillan’s three-act ballet
Manon - Tamara Rojo
Des Grieux - Carlos Acosta
Lescaut - José Martín
Monsieur G.M - .Christopher Saunders
Lescaut’s Mistress - Laura Morera
The Royal Ballet
The Orchestra of the Royal Ballet/Martin Yates
Filmed on October 24 and 1 November 2008 at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden
With bonus materials including interviews.
DECCA DVD 074 3346 [117:00 (ballet) + 45:00 (bonus)]

This new version of Kenneth MacMillan's ballet, Manon, is a sumptuous production with two fabulous leads: the stunningly beautiful and supremely graceful Tamara Rojo as Manon and the athletic yet sensitive Carlos Acosta as Des Grieux. They have a vital sense of theatre and drama and their dancing is wondrous. I used excerpts from this DVD, in the week I am writing this review, at a UK WEA (Workers’ Education Association) Day School I held in Winchester. It spellbound the 36+ audience.

Those expecting Massenet's lovely music from his opera, Manon, will be disappointed for dancer-turned-composer Leighton Lucas and MacMillan selected music with strong dancing rhythms from other Massenet's works. Lucas (with the collaboration of Hilda Gaunt) assembled the ballet score from 45 fragments of Massenet’s music. Massenet was a prolific composer of over a dozen operas, ballets and orchestral music plus oratorios and some 200 songs, so there was plenty of source material to mine. It might be said that MacMillan’s ballet helped to launch a revival of interest in this unjustly neglected composer.

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. 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. Puccini was to compose his first big hit, his opera, Manon Lescaut, based on other scenes from Prévost’s novella.

In this Royal Ballet production, costumes, scenery and lighting feast the eye. MacMillan’s genius shines everywhere, in his acute observation of character and traits transformed so sharply into dance. Take the evolution of the relationship of Manon and Des Griex. As they meet they are young and rather naïve and innocent. In Act 1 their dancing together, with tender ‘travelling lifts’ has the freshness and exhilaration of new-found love. In the next scene in their love nest, the intimacy and ecstasy of their dance movements leaves no doubt that they are now consummated lovers blissfully aware of each other’s bodies. After Des Grieux leaves, and her brother Lescaut and her rich admirer, G.M., come to entice her away with jewels and furs, the mood and movements descend to degradation as Manon abandons love for riches. In this amazing pas de trois, Tamara Rojo’s figures here are so elastic and snake-like sinuous, that one would imagine she is made of india-rubber. In the end Manon’s rapaciousness catches up with her and she descends through remorse to ruin when she is deported as a prostitute and a thief to the New World. Her final dance with Des Grieux with whom she has run off into the Louisiana swamps after his victorious duel, graphically declares her weakness and despair in Rojo’s heavier mournful movements.

The principals are ably supported especially by José Martín as Manon’s dissolute brother Lescaut and Laura Morera as his mistress. Their hilarious, tipsy dances together are a highlight of Act II’s first scene and these dances are another tribute to MacMillan’s keenly observed choreography. The Corps de Ballet’s characterisations also shine in this scene.

DVD 1 includes a 45 minute documentary on the production of the ballet with comments from the two principals and memories of Kenneth MacMillan and his methods of working from former ballet stars who worked in the original production. MacMillan’s Manon was first performed in 1974 at Covent Garden with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell.

A truly spellbinding production with superb dancing from Rojo and Acosta.

Ian and Grace Lace