Though Jules Massenet’s music – upon which this ballet is built – is rich and enigmatic, the story of Manon is a grubby one. A young girl about to enter a convent is pursued by rich old men with a sense of entitlement to her, while her brother Lescaut is only too happy to strike deals with them. Amidst this, she falls in love with the sensitive Des Grieux, but is lured towards 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 united 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 dying children.
Alongside this potent set-up stand some truly remarkable performances. When Leanne Benjamin’s Manon first appears she seems all innocent, but this innocence is of the playful variety, not of the type that would ever suggest she might be happy in a convent. In her Act One pas de deux with Steven McRae’s Des Grieux, they blend a dash of flirtatiousness and touch of hesitancy with an overwhelming sense of enchantment with each other. Their Act Two pas de deux sees them pushing, pulling and dragging each other around, but the skill with which they do so creates something deliciously fluid. At one point, McRae lets Benjamin fall flat to the ground from standing virtually upright in one continuous graceful movement.
Both dancers move very cleanly through the air, and achieve clear poses without ever making them feel forced. The effortlessness with which they accomplish each effect makes us forget the bodily mechanics that go behind producing them. While Benjamin particularly excels in this respect, the way in which she can suddenly appear to float into the air is as much down to McRae as her. On the first night, McRae was replacing the injured Edward Watson, and although I can picture him playing the part superbly, McRae in no way disappoints.
The couple’s turn is immediately followed by a pas de trois between Manon, Christopher Saunders’s G.M. and Ricardo Cervera’s Lescaut, in which the sub-text could not be clearer. Here, Lescaut has to support G.M. to deliver the type of lifts that Manon and Des Grieux achieved so effortlessly together. The routine is just as accomplished as that which preceded it, but the lack of chemistry between this pair as lovers is obvious, and a cooler Manon is now won over by fur coats rather than passion.
In Act Two Benjamin elegantly conveys how Manon’s elevated status has made her more assertive and alluring, but also considerably shallower. This party scene does provide some light comic relief as the younger women entice the older men to dance, only for them to retire with cramp. Even here, however, there are sinister undertones as G.M. delights in seeing the women fighting and scratching as he tosses a few coins among them. Act Three could not be more emotive as visually the ballet enters a fantasy realm. In the swamps of Louisiana water nymphs appear alongside figures from Manon’s past, and the hanging reeds provide a brilliant ‘framing’ device for the dances.
Conductor Martin Yates reveals his intricate understanding of Massenet’s music (having played his own part in orchestrating it for the ballet), and produces a velvety, silky smooth sound. The Overture is beautifully refined and understated, but when we hear Act Two’s transition from the exit of the party guests to the start of the confrontation between Manon and Des Grieux, we know that the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House has a firm grasp of dramatic requirements.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.