Last Thursday I attended Manon, Massenet’s ballet at the Royal Opera House, in what was the 223rd performance of the piece at this venue. It is a popular programming choice and offers two wonderful lead roles that are surprisingly character driven. We had (the cheapest) £6 standing tickets, in the upper slips, and so our view was rather restricted. Craftily though, before the lights went down, we clued up on which seats were left empty in the stalls, and in the first of the two intervals we crept down to enjoy the rest of the show from a premium vantage point!
Manon, a French girl is on her way to enter a convent. Her brother Lescaut, noticing a wealthy gentleman’s attraction to Manon comes to an arrangement with him. Meanwhile she falls in love with Des Grieux, an attractive young student. Torn between wealth and love, Manon struggles throughout the ballet to decide on which man to choose. As a result of her mischievous behaviour, her brother is killed and she is arrested and deported as a prostitute. The faithful Des Grieux follows her to America, where an exhausted and frail Manon dies in his arms.
Due to Edward Watson’s last minute injury, the role of Des Grieux was played by Steven McRae, an Australian dancer who I saw most recently in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Watson’s absence was our gain: McRae gave a heartbreaking rendition of the desperate lover, as believable as it was skilful. Leanne Benjamin is pretty and tempting as the enchanting minx, Manon. She dances superbly, and despite being very petite, fills the stage with her perfect pointe and fluttering steps. As I watched I could hear the audience members around me gasping at her intensity and brilliance.
Kenneth MacMillan's choreography is impressive in its vitality and dramatic strength which brings the story to life. Occasionally some of the chorus routines feel a little clumsy and less composed than the sublime solo moments. The design, from Nicholas Georgiadis is stunning - I love the final mysterious jungle, with long green vines twirling down through which the main couple dance.
Perhaps not as inventive as the brilliant Alice ballet, but beautiful nonetheless.
Manon continues until 9 May 2011, book here.