November 13, 2011 9:07 pm

Manon, Royal Opera House, London

The motive force in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon is the destruction of innocence, the innocence of the seminarian des Grieux and of the all-too-delicious Manon. Its frame is the degenerate period of the Régence, its moral simply that “nothing good will come of it”. Every character is corrupt or corruptible, and the staging must (and does in Nicholas Georgiadis’s luscious design and in the generality of Royal Ballet performances) show us the erosion of virtue, the triumph of lust, the brute beneath the skin. The staging is also, as the current fine revival tells us, cracking good theatre.

With its revised orchestration by Martin Yates, who also conducted this performance and gave the drama its fullest value, we can savour all the implications of what is a superb vehicle for a ballerina and her partner to set the groundlings in a roar. Roar they did last week, but my voice was somewhat muted.

My cheers for the ensemble are as loud as anyone’s, as also my admiration for the principals: for José Martin’s vivid Lescaut, for Gary Avis’s tumescent Monsieur GM, for Itziar Mendizabel as Lescaut’s mistress, sailing through terrible difficulties with sublime insouciance, for Bennet Gartside’s superlative gaoler (the best ever?), for Christine Arestis’s madam. And my usual bouquet for the tiny tart in the apricot Vigée Lebrun trouser suit, saucily delicious, played with the merriest glances.

For Sergey Polunin’s debut as des Grieux unalloyed praise: the role beautifully danced (physical presence perfectly controlled, line and phrasing eloquent, character understood) and given with a sure sense of its tragic momentum. For Lauren Cuthbertson’s first Manon, reserves about her curiously impassive manner, about the lack of that sexual perfume which must permeate the character, making for an un-nuanced reading in the first two acts, dutiful and clear though the dancing was.

Manon’s secret is her involuntary sexual charm: rather like Marilyn Monroe, she cannot help her own erotic power, nor the tragedy that it brings in its train. The role demands just this moral and sensual naivete which Cuthbertson, in this first account, underplays.

4 stars

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