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Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”
Ballet in three Acts
Music by Jules Massenet (1842-1912), originally compiled by Leighton Lucas with the collaboration of Hilda Gaunt
Orchestrated by Martin Yates
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
Manon: Sarah Lamb, Des Grieux: Vadim Muntagirov, Lescaut: Ryoichi Hirano, Monsieur G.M.: Gary Avis, Lescaut’s mistress: Itziar Mendizabal, Madame: Kristen McNally, Gaoler: Thomas Whitehead, Beggar chief: James Hay, Courtesans: Fumi Kaneko, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Olivia Cowley, Mayara Magri, Young gentlemen: Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Marcelino Sambé, Clients: Nicol Edmonds, Benjamin Ella, Lukas Bjorneboe Braendsrod, Alastair Marriott, David Yudes, Old gentleman: Jonathan Howells
The Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Martin Yates
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2018
Picture format: 16:9 anamorphic
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0 and dts Digital Surround
All regions
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1285D [133 mins]

While Massenet never composed a full-length stand-alone ballet, he did write some quite substantial episodes for dancers that were shoehorned, as was the fashion at the time, into several of his operas. Four of them, taken from Bacchus, Hérodiade, Thaïs and Le Cid, made up the contents of a very attractive Naxos disc that, a few years ago, delighted my colleague Brian Reinhart (review).

In the early 1970s the Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director Kenneth MacMillan decided to commission a major new production based on Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut. While it would be danced to music by Massenet, he instructed the arranger Lucas Leighton not to use any material from that composer’s opera Manon itself. Instead, Leighton – “with the collaboration of Hilda Gaunt” as the credits, presumably for contractual reasons, have ever since informed us – adopted a pick’n’mix approach, harvesting suitable music from some of the composer’s other scores, rather as, in the same way but a decade earlier, choreographer John Cranko had created his own ballet Onegin from Tchaikovsky’s music while deliberately eschewing any material taken directly from the eponymous opera (review).

As a sometime performer with the Diaghilev company and an occasional ballet composer himself, Leighton produced an eminently danceable score. Neatly described by one contemporary critic as “a hotch-potch of bits and pieces, conventionally orchestrated, which nevertheless rises to its dramatic occasions” (Richard Buckle Buckle at the ballet [London, 1980], p. 174), it was used at Covent Garden for almost 40 years and is probably best heard today in Richard Bonynge’s recording with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House itself (my own copy is a Double Decca release 470 525-2). In 2011, however, the ballet was re-orchestrated by Martin Yates and it is that more recent version that features on this newly released DVD.

Anyone familiar with Massenet’s opera Manon, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (survey) or, far less probably, with Abbé Prévost’s original novel, will already know the story of the girl who, destined for life in a convent, is instead pimped out by her own brother to a succession of wealthy men – an ultimately fatal course from which her devoted admirer the student Des Grieux is unable to save her. MacMillan’s take on it is to cast his cynical spotlight firmly on the squalidly corrupt amorality exhibited by almost all the characters – a gaggle of thieves, pimps, panders, whores, libidinous aristocrats and decrepit sugar daddies perpetually on the hunt for either money or sex. Even Manon herself, who might more conventionally have been portrayed as a betrayed innocent or, at worst, a Traviata-like tart with a heart, emerges pretty badly here, for the production refuses to portray her as a pure but betrayed heroine. Instead, an air of carefully-crafted ambiguity ultimately leaves it to each viewer to decide whether she is merely a naïve and pitiable victim of circumstance (and wicked men) or, as the clearly appalled critic of The Morning Star put it in his review of Manon’s 1974 premiere, “a nasty little diamond-digger”. Even her devoted suitor Des Grieux, the most sympathetic character on stage, isn’t squeaky clean: quite apart from seducing Manon away from her intended religious life, he goes on to cheat at cards and to knife a man to death. Unsurprisingly, early audiences found MacMillan’s Manon a pretty bleak and disturbing spectacle and, even today, performances seem to necessitate a restorative drink or two, for Covent Garden’s interval takings at the bar are said to be markedly higher than usual whenever it’s presented (Zoë Anderson The ballet lover’s companion [New Haven, 2015], p. 249).

Over the years since its premiere, however, Manon has established itself as a modern classic and this new release joins several others already on the market. A film of a Royal Ballet performance starring Jennifer Penney and Anthony Dowell was made for TV in 1982 (Warner Music Vision / NVC Arts 5186-50348-2) but, while it preserves the interpretations of almost all the original cast who dance with both authority and immense skill, its inevitably inferior technical quality may rule it out for some. Meanwhile, an Australian Ballet production dating from 1995 and starring Justine Summers and Steven Heathcote (Faveo / Opus Arte OA F4006 D) has its admirers but once again looks a little dated. The real contenders are a 2009 Royal Ballet performance starring Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta (Decca 074 3346) and BelAir Classiques’s release of a Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris’s production in which Aurélie Dupont (making her 2015 farewell performance) is partnered by guest superstar Roberto Bolle (BAC 135).

Those casting details are of some importance when we remind ourselves that the character of Manon arrives on stage as a young girl destined for a convent and as yet uncorrupted by the world, while Des Grieux is an unsophisticated theology student who is completely unversed in life’s seedier byways.

Mature, experienced artists at the top of their game such as Rojo, Dupont, Acosta and Bolle would certainly entice me to the theatre to see what they could do with those roles. But, while each of those four is a strong, charismatic dancer who radiates authority on stage, that in itself presents a problem in that strength and authority are not the qualities most appropriate to Manon and Des Grieux, both of whom (with the possible reservations already noted in the case of Manon) are essentially pitiable victims of the society in which they live.

The incongruity is, I think, made apparent in two reviewers’ quotes stickered to the front cover of the Decca DVD, one praising Carlos Acosta’s “magnificent physicality” and the other describing his pas de deux with Rojo as “tender and smouldering”. While everyone is, of course, entitled to their own opinion, my own is that Des Grieux’s character is less magnificently physical or smouldering than naïve, impulsive and gauche. Bearing that in mind, I very much warm to the stars of this new release, Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov, for neither brings with them the baggage associated with international ballet superstardom and both succeed very naturally in conveying their characters’ inexperience of life and their inability to meet on its own terms a world in which they are way out of their moral and practical depths.

Ms Lamb is particularly good at adopting enigmatic – and sometimes, indeed, blandly inexpressive – facial expressions, suggesting, perhaps, that Manon is too self-obsessed or even too dim to comprehend the reality of the situation in which she finds herself. That emotional reticence also makes it difficult to decide, at some points in the story, whether the girl is motivated primarily by genuine emotion or by purely mercenary considerations. I was reminded of the final scene of the classic movie Queen Christina, where the skilfully-maintained neutrality of Greta Garbo’s face allows each audience member to project onto it the emotions that he or she supposes the Swedish queen ought to be displaying at that point. Ms Lamb is similarly, I think, allowing viewers to decide subjectively for themselves whether Manon is, at any particular moment, to be morally condemned or pitied.

Mr Muntagirov is, I think, if anything even better, especially in ballet’s all-important pas de deux, where Manon’s choreography is often rather restrained and the focus is primarily on Des Grieux’s ardent wooing. Those occasions certainly offer him the opportunity to display not only his skilful technique but also his acting ability. Surely only MacMillan’s Manon – “the wanton with a heart of silver-gilt” (Buckle op. cit., p. 174) who all too often seems more interested in the source of her next diamond bracelet than in achieving redemption through love – could resist such pitiful puppy-dog eyes and eloquently-delivered gestures? Des Grieux when danced by La Scala’s Roberto Bolle has – probably inevitably – a somewhat heroic air about him; Mutagirov, in contrast, presents us with a much more sensitive and tentative characterisation and later, in an accompanying short extra feature, deploys his attractively broken English to explain rather endearingly that Des Grieux is “not that kind of butch man”.

As ever these days, the Royal Ballet fields a supporting cast with great strength in depth. Ryoichi Hirano is superb in the role of Manon’s amoral brother and particularly delights the Covent Garden audience in the comically drunken dance he shares with his on-stage mistress Itziar Mendizabal. Meanwhile, Gary Avis portrays the seedy, perpetually sneering but highly dangerous Monsieur G.M. most effectively, and Thomas Whitehead is equally repulsive as he reprises his role, first seen on the Rojo/Acosta recording, of the sexually-exploitative Louisiana gaoler. The remaining featured parts are invariably well executed, and the corps de ballet offers authentic portrayals of assorted aristocrats, beggars, convicts, soldiers and whores (one of whom, just to offer suitably-inclined customers something a little spicier, is dressed as a boy). The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House delivers Martin Yates’s orchestration of the score with aplomb and authority, which is hardly surprising as Mr Yates himself leads its members in the pit. Highly experienced video director Ross MacGibbon manages to capture both the ballet’s grand sweep and its more intimately conceived moments very effectively and the technical reproduction of both picture and sound is very fine indeed. Three short features – An introduction to Manon, Creating the courtesans and Darcey Bussell interviews Deborah MacMillan – round off the disc.

This new version now eclipses both of its Covent Garden predecessors, as well as the competition from France and Australia, to become the preferred version of Kenneth MacMillan’s frequently bleak, morally challenging but highly entertaining and rewarding ballet.

Rob Maynard

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