Manon at the Royal Opera House
The overture is over, the curtains are up and we are greeted with a living 18th-century painting. Everything, from the period costumes to the props, looks authentic. This version of Manon keeps Jules Massenet’s original musical score and is faithful to the 18th-century setting and classical style of ballet, but the raw emotion from the leads and impeccable attention to detail keeps it from feeling stale.
Manon (Sarah Lamb) is meeting her brother Lescaut (Ryoichi Hirano) in a courtyard of a Paris inn on her way to a convent. An Old Gentleman (Thomas Whitehead) takes an interest in her, so Lescaut takes him inside to make arrangements. While they’re gone, Manon bumps into a student called Des Grieux (Vadim Muntagirov). They fall in love straight away and run off to his home. Meanwhile, another rich man called Monsieur GM (Christopher Saunders) has also professed an interest in the young woman, whose brother takes him to find the young couple. Manon is soon caught in a tragic tug of war between her love for Des Grieux and her desire to be rich and showered with jewels.
While Manon and Des Grieux are not always seen as sympathetic characters – they were a whore and a fool according to critics in the 1970s – their love story is believable because Lamb and Muntagirov fit so well together, both in terms of their effortless duets and their passionate performances. Little touches like nuzzling each other’s faces and reverently feeling each other’s bodies in a way that seems spiritual rather than sexual makes us root for them even when Manon is being lifted by five rich gentlemen or is cuddling up to Monsieur GM.
Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography conveys a sense of character through simple actions – Monsieur GM and Manon’s relationship can be boiled down to the moments when Saunders caresses Lamb’s feet. Gary Avis as the Goaler gives a confident and arrogant performance, which contrasts with Lamb’s meek and scared movements.
Even scenes where the dancing is deliberately awkward and humorous – such as Lescaut and Madame’s (Elizabeth McGorian) drunken duet – are expertly executed. Lamb is so smooth and light it makes everything she does seem effortless. This show contains many triple pirouettes, difficult lifts and dangerous throws, but the ensemble make it look so easy. The lighting (designed by Jacopo Pantani) transforms the backdrop from a tatty inn to a simple bedroom to the murky Louisiana swamps – which are enhanced by radioactive green reeds descending onto the stage.
Manon may be less innovative then more modern takes on traditional ballets, but this is classical ballet at its very best.
Photo: ROH/Alice Pennefather
Manon is at the Royal Opera House from 2nd October until 6th November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.