The 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost has been very popular in the world of music, inspiring operas by Puccini and the French nineteenth century composer, Jules Massenet. This ballet version of Manon was created by legendary choreographer Kenneth MacMillan for the Royal Ballet in 1974, and how appropriate that on its fortieth anniversary it should enjoy such a stunning revival.
The rich and enigmatic music does not employ Massenet’s eponymous opera score, but rather other music by the composer, arranged by Leighton Lucas and Hilda Gaunt. The story sees Manon, a young French girl who is initially about to enter a convent, pursued by rich old men with a sense of entitlement to her. Her brother Lescaut is only too happy to strike deals with them, but she falls in love with the sensitive Des Grieux before being lured towards the wealthy Monsieur G.M. with expensive presents. When she tries to escape his clutches she is deported as a prostitute to America where she is finally able to be with Des Grieux, but immediately becomes too weak to live.
Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography and Nicholas Georgiadis’s designs, which set the drama on the eve of the revolutionary year of 1789, emphasise how the grit and grime of the poor’s existence reflect upon the society as a whole. The backdrop of rags used for the French courtyard and American port features just as prominently in Des Grieux’s own bedroom, and the wealthy remain just a nostril’s distance from the beggars and destitute.
Marianela Nuñez puts in such a stunning performance as Manon that it soon becomes easy to forget a lot of things! There is such a sense of overarching unity to her performance that it is easy to forget just how many different styles of dancing are required of her. Her overall movement is so graceful that it often belies the sheer speed with which she, on occasions, cuts through the air. Finally, her portrayals of such emotions as joy, passion, infatuation and fear seem so natural that it often doesn’t occur to us that she is, to a large extent, capturing them through her superlative formal balletic technique.
To suggest, however, that Nuñez’s performance stands out might risk doing a disservice to the strength of the rest of the cast. As Des Grieux, Federico Bonelli’s brilliant athleticism can imbue his movement with beautiful lightness or a sense of monumentality as the occasion demands. In Nuñez and Bonelli’s Act One pas de deux they blend a dash of flirtatiousness and touch of hesitancy with an overwhelming sense of enchantment with each other. Their Act Two duet sees them pushing, pulling and dragging each other around, but the skill with which they do so creates something deliciously fluid. Christopher Saunders is an excellent Monsieur G.M., Ricardo Cervera a brilliantly clean and dashing (if sometimes drunken!) Lescaut, and Laura Morera an intriguingly good Mistress.
Until 1 November (seventeen performances, various start times) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD. Casts vary over the run. For further details and tickets visit the Royal Opera House website.
The performance on 16 October, featuring the cast described above, will be broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and worldwide. For details of participating venues click here.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from the Royal Ballet press team.