The Royal Ballet: Manon

The Royal Opera House, London
January 17, 2024

It’s remarkable to think that it’s now fifty years since its premiere. Whether in the busy courtyard of an inn near Paris, Des Grieux’s lodgings in the city, Madame’s hôtel particulier, a quayside in Louisiana or that state’s murky swamps, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon is a feast. It’s period melodrama brought to vivid life. Love, jealousy, criminality, sexual abuse, murder… The story of a young woman prostituted by her brother but who then falls for the handsome, if penniless, Des Grieux, only to temporarily abandon him for the finery offered by Monsieur G.M., a rich roué, would make a great TV mini-series. It’s top ballet fare too.

Francesca Hayward was near perfect in the title role. Whether playful when alone with Des Grieux in the bedroom, in glamorous dresses and furs in Act II or with shorn hair and rags in Act III, her acting and dancing felt totally unforced and absolutely natural. Whenever she was on stage, the eyes were drawn to her.

Francesca Hayward as Manon
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou, ROH

Hayward’s Manon is not conniving. There’s also no sense of her playing those interested in her off against each other. There’s also no sense of her being conflicted between her love for Des Grieux, and enjoying the luxurious clothes and attention that comes with being Monsieur G.M.’s plaything.

Rather, she seems to live in the moment. She’s impulsive. She grabs every opportunity that comes her way. Whether she really thinks she can have Des Grieux’s love and Monsieur G.M.’s wealth, I doubt. She more seems someone who grabs every opportunity that presents itself without and consideration of what went before or where it might lead. Amoral? Yes. Naive? Certainly. But innocent? I think not. She becomes a victim of herself. Every choice she makes is another step towards her downfall.

The ballet hits its heights when Hayward comes together with the wonderful Marcelino Sambé, making his debut as Des Grieux. Hayward’s Manon is as complex character as they come but Sambé’s Des Grieux is altogether more straightforward. He’s besotted with an almost puppyish devotion to her. From the moment he first claps eyes on her, his yearning and love pours out. His opening dance was quite beautiful. When a solo calls for the ultimate control and technique, it’s easy to lose the underlying emotion but, as one adagio extension followed another, he made it sing.

Francesca Hayward as Manon and Marcelino Sambé as Des Grieux
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou, ROH

It is the ballet’s pas de deux that are its real arias, however. The first, in Act I in Des Grieux’s bedroom, full of daring, ecstatic lifts and rapturous embraces, is pure poetry as they reciprocate their feelings for each other. The chemistry between Hayward and Sambé is terrific. Mind you, there’s not much sign of her missing him later on when she’s with Monsieur G.M.

For all the rapturous joy and elation of that first dance together, it’s the final pas de deux, Manon’s suffering and eventual end in that Louisiana swamp, that people remember. In intent, it’s a repeat of her and Des Grieux’s pas de deux from Act I, but MacMillan cleverly shows us how Manon’s body is now broken and failing. As the dance anticipates her forthcoming death, she’s heavy, constantly falling off balance with little control over her limbs. Des Grieux, true to form, continuously catches, drags and keeps her close. He does not want to give up. He does not want her to give up.

Francesca Hayward as Manon and Marcelino Sambé as Des Grieux
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou, ROH

And, for a while, Hayward shows us that Manon does fight. But, assuredly, she also shows us her spirit giving up too. And, more than anything, it’s that which truly hits home and makes the scene as powerful as it is. Manon is not a character that evokes much in the way of sympathy, and she may bring her demise largely on herself but, for the first time, we feel for her.

Of the other characters, Gary Avis brought just the right lasciviousness to Monsieur G.M., a truly unpleasant and distasteful individual used to getting whatever he wanted. He handles Manon with care like she’s the most delicate jewel, but when he (and later the Gaoler) puts a bracelet on her wrist, it feels like a sign of ownership, like a collar being put on a dog. Even after he’s bought Manon, he can’t keep his eyes, and hands, off the other women. Avis oozed sleaze but most impressive was the underlying viciousness portrayed.

Alexander Campbell danced Manon’s conniving brother Lescaut, essentially a pimp willing to make a profit out of his sister, or any other woman come to that. Even so, he’s difficult to particularly dislike. Perhaps that’s partly because he gets the ballet’s one comic moment in a cleverly choreographed drunken dance in Act II as he tries to partner his mistress, Mayara Magri. Every step and misstep, and there’s a lot of them, was expertly judged and perfectly timed.

Elizabeth McGorian’s Madame was another impressive vignette. In her own way, she’s one of the few ‘honest’ figures in the whole tale. Also excellent was Taisuke Nakao as the Beggar Chief, who leapt and turned with great aplomb and bags of energy.

The Royal Ballet dance Manon at The Royal Opera House, London to March 8, 2024.