The Royal Ballet’s latest revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 Manon got off to a less than thrilling start at the Royal Opera House last Friday despite some excellent work in the ranks. Laura Morera makes toe shoes an aphrodisiac in her teasing solos as Lescaut’s mistress. Dashing Valentino Zucchetti debuts as Lescaut this season and seems impatient for the spotlight: yes, he can kick higher and jump smarter than the other brothel “gentlemen” but casting him in a pas de trois was possibly unwise.
Marianela Nuñez, with her smiley manners and wondrous technical facility, is generally associated with the sunny side of the repertoire – Coppélia, La fille mal gardée – but her April triumph in Christopher Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale was a reminder of her range. Her Manon has fine moments – the rape scene with Gary Avis was repulsively good – but this ballet is only as strong as its central partnership and Nuñez has yet to find her Des Grieux. Federico Bonelli tackled the breakneck duets with Sunday driver caution. Neither star ran fast enough, fell hard enough to convince us of the careless rapture that spins the plot.
Tuesday’s matinee was a different matter thanks to the mutual trust and split-second timing between Edward Watson and Francesca Hayward, a 22-year-old British soloist dancing her first three-act lead. After a tentative start, Hayward, like Manon herself, began to sense her own physical allure and was soon luxuriating in it during the many-partnered Act II sarabande, a ravishing wriggle running across her shoulders and down through arms that trailed in her wake like smoke.
Des Grieux’s solos were shaped on Anthony Dowell and are almost a pastiche of classical perfectionism. Watson is not really cut out for that kind of display but his long limbs sketch the lines with puppyish insouciance. MacMillan is forever showing us classroom steps skewed by an altered state of mind – drink, drugs, disease, lust – and Watson finesses his rough edges into a character reading, as further proof of the hero’s love-drunk gaucherie. Many Mayerlings have made him master of the terrifying throws and catches of Manon’s swamp pas de deux and the dying Hayward, nerves long gone, literally threw herself into his waiting arms for a devastating finale.