Manon is an ideal first ballet for those who cannot envisage anything other than white tutus and fairies, but it is certainly not one for the kiddies. Indeed, it comes with a cautionary note that it contains scenes of an adult nature, including sexual violence. Manon’s world is one in which women are commodities to be used and abused — Prévost’s novel on which the ballet is based may be 260 years old but, sadly, it still has relevance today.
At first glance, the story seems rather sordid: an innocent young girl falls from grace and eventually, arrested for prostitution and deported to New Orleans, she expires in the Louisiana swamplands, her distraught lover beside her. But this is one of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s greatest works, and the ballet contains some of his most beautiful and thrilling pas de deux. He was never one to hold back with his luscious — and very sexy — choreography (hence the adult only recommendation). This popular, three-act ballet, with beautiful designs by Nicholas Georgiadis, is never out of the Royal Ballet’s repertory for long.
The current run will see most of the company’s principals tackle the role of Manon. On the opening night, Francesca Hayward — one of the youngest principals — was luminous as the doomed heroine. Flirty from the outset, she quickly becomes aware of her power over men, casting aside her lover in favour of furs and diamonds from an older man (a suitably slimy performance from Christopher Saunders).
As her brother Lescaut, Alexander Campbell was menacing and manipulative and Federico Bonelli provided superb partnering as Manon’s rejected lover.
In the final, desperate pas de deux, Hayward’s broken little body (and she does look exceedingly frail) was tossed in the air like a rag doll. Claire Calvert stood out as Lescaut’s mistress, with beautiful port de bras, as did Gary Avis in the small but important role of the gaoler.
The music is a selection of pieces by Massenet, and it works well, especially in the powerful last scene. Ladies, wear your waterproof mascara — only those with a heart of ice could fail to be moved by this tragic tale.
Manon is at the Royal Opera House until May 16 screening at selected cinemas on May 3.