Manon, with Benjamin and McRae, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, April 2011

This work is one of the jewels in the Royal Ballet’s crown, and it hardly seems thirty-seven years since Kenneth Macmillan created it.

Leanne Benjamin in Act I, all photos by Bill Cooper

The performances had a wonderful freshness, and Leanne Benjamin brought Manon beautifully to life, showing her complexity: frivolity and teasing, anguish, fecklessness and the desire for pretty clothes, jewellery and a good time. She entered the party in Act II looking like a little girl surrounded by grown ups, seeming so pleased to see her brother before exhibiting a catching vivacity and zest for life as she engages the lecherous attentions of eight ‘gentlemen’. Steven McRae as her lover was a brilliant partner in their various pas-de-deux, and although Des Grieux is a bit of a cipher in this ballet, he performed with such perfect control and élan that his dancing took on an ethereal mix of nobility and youthful energy. This was McRae’s debut in the role, and from his first solo adagio in Act I to his remarkable spins in the scene where he knifes the gaoler, and his final attempts to console the dying Manon, he was superb.

Ricardo Cervera was wonderful as Manon’s brother Lescaut with his amoral attitudes, followed by later regrets and failed attempts to rescue his sister. His drunken performance in Act II was convincing without ever being over the top, and he was well aided by Laura Morera as his mistress, showing just the right amount of sexiness without in any way overshadowing Manon. Christopher Saunders portrayed a brutally powerful Monsieur G.M., and Gary Avis was riveting as the gaoler, from the moment he entered front stage left in Act III. This was altogether a terrific cast, and Martin Yates conducted with great sensitivity and emotional tension.

Leanne Benjamin in Act III

The music by Massenet contains nothing from his opera of the same name, and was originally compiled by Leighton Lucas, with collaboration by Hilda Gaunt. However, it seems that Martin Yates has re-orchestrated it, with fine effect. This was the first performance in the present run, and although Steven McRae was due to take the role of Des Grieux later, he replaced Edward Watson in today’s first night and I was delighted to witness such a marvellous debut in the role.

Performances with various casts continue until June 4 — for more details click here.

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