Manon, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, November 2011

Manon is one of MacMillan’s most beloved full-length ballets, and the first night of the present run was performed with huge conviction.

Sarah Lamb as Manon, all photos Johan Persson

Rupert Pennefather — always an extremely talented dancer with a lovely line — seems transformed, his body language and facial expressions eloquently exhibiting the emotions and frustrations felt by Des Grieux. He showed a sense of attack that has been missing in the past, and his partnership with Sarah Lamb was glorious. From their first pas-de-deux in Act I to her final death in his arms in the swamps of Louisiana they were superb together. She brought out the amoral, changeable nature of Manon, so easily distracted by jewels and a comfortable life, and apparently too by the power and brutality that Christopher Saunders exhibits as Monsieur G.M. He too seems to have grown in his characterisation of the role.

From the beginning of Act I to his death by gunshot, Manon’s brother Lescaut was brilliantly portrayed by Thiago Soares. He and Pennefather showed great precision and musicality, and the interactions between the two of them were riveting — Lescaut so determinedly lacking in moral compass, against the emotions embodied by Des Grieux. The pas-de-trois with Manon, Lescaut and Monsieur G.M. later in the Act — a wonderful piece of Macmillan choreography — was beautifully performed, and the first interval arrived after a terrific performance of one of the greatest Acts in any full-length ballet.

Monsieur G.M., Manon, and Lescaut, pas-de-trois

The remainder of the evening continued the emotional roller-coaster, helped by the superb conducting of Martin Yates. It’s a pleasure to hear his performance after a disappointing musical account of Sleeping Beauty recently, but then Martin Yates is a serious musician who has re-orchestrated the score of this ballet. It was originally conceived by Leighton Lucas using various pieces from Massenet’s operas — though nothing from Manon itself — and Yates brought out the power of the music very strongly.

MacMillan’s choreography brilliantly shows the world of pre-revolutionary France, to say nothing of the emotions of the characters, and with so many dancers contributing individual performances, the overall effect is mesmerising. Among solo roles, Valentino Zucchetti danced superbly as the beggar chief in Act I, and Eric Underwood gave a fine performance of the gaoler in Act III, his predatory gaze following the ragged and shorn Manon, before his final assault on her in his private rooms.

With Martin Yates’s conducting these performances are not to be missed, and they continue with various casts until November 26 — for details click here.

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