American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
June 17, 18, 19 evening, and 21, 2019
— by Jerry Hochman
Name a ballet tragedy choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan that features thrilling romantic pas de deux by the lead dancers, street beggars, harlots, sword fights, a stabbing death, soon to be lovers who find each other across a crowded space, and a stomach-curdling scream – and which is an emotionally draining experience for anyone in the audience with a beating heart.
No, not that one. Manon.
After a lengthy absence, Manon returned to American Ballet Theatre’s Met schedule with a week of performances that began on June 17. It’s a ballet of extraordinary physical and emotional complexity, with a demanding female lead character that’s the equal of anything in the contemporary ballet canon, choreography that melts as well as excites, and consistently evocative and galvanizing music by Jules Massenet. It’s one of my favorite ballets. It’s been away too long.
For this engagement, I saw three of the four casts, led by Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle on Monday, Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo on Tuesday, and Isabella Boylston and David Hallberg the following night. [Regrettably, I was unable to see the fourth cast, led by Misty Copeland and Cory Stearns.] Each of the Manons, according to ABT’s publicity releases, was a role debut. None of the portrayals disappointed, and any member of the audience seeing only one of them would believe that that one could not be equaled. But there were appreciable differences between them that I’ll discuss below.
Over the years, I’ve seen fewer performances of Manon than I have of other ballet masterpieces, primarily because Manon is not scheduled as frequently as others. Of those I’ve seen (all in New York), the Manons most indelibly etched in my mind are those by Diana Vishneva and Alessandra Ferri (including a series of “dueling” Manons in 2007, and Vishneva’s 10th Anniversary ABT Celebration in 2014), and by Sylvie Guillem. That nothing I’ve seen to date can equal these portrayals is not surprising. That two of them are already close, and the third certainly credible, speaks to the extraordinary talents as dancer / actors of this week’s casts.
Manon is not the greatest ballet in the world. Essentially, it’s somewhat of a rip-off of MacMillan by MacMillan, with Manon, which he created in 1974, resembling his 1965 Romeo and Juliet. Much of MacMillan’s choreography is filler (as it was in Romeo and Juliet), but it all works, and his romantic pas de deux (instead of balcony, bed and bier, in Manon we have bed, bordello and bayou) are equally exquisite, though told from a different point of view. And if you focus on the ballet’s arias – the pas de deux and Des Grieux’s solos – the dancing is gorgeous, and one can revel in MacMillan’s explorations of emotion’s complexities with movement that percolates rather than simply pulses, in which the characters’ passion ignites the stage as if gasoline had been poured on already flaming embers. Manon may be melodrama, but it’s high-class melodrama.
Ultimately, however, Manon is a classic morality tale, and what makes the piece, and the performance, is Manon’s journey. It’s also the ballet’s one significant failing. MacMillan reportedly intended to portray Manon’s love of luxury as arising from her desperate poverty, but the ballet never shows the poverty. We see what Manon’s motivations are; we see her seduced by extravagant and easily attainable wealth (the intensity of seduction is here displayed, effectively, as a common component to the lure of wealth and to sexual passion), but we don’t see the reason behind it. Instead, Manon is usually portrayed as somewhat of a courtesan-in-training from the outset, who, at the very least, doesn’t require much convincing to trade sexual favor for wealth. She may also be portrayed initially as somewhat of an innocent (as I’ll discuss further below), which at least provides the story with a legitimate sense of tragedy, but that’s not the same thing as cause and effect.
The story of Manon Lescaut has been around awhile – since the 1731 novel, Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, written by the Abbé Prévost (Antoine François Prévost d’Exiles) initially as part of a series of stories titled Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité. Since then, the story has been memorialized in at least two operas (one by Puccini, one by Massenet), and was used as a reference point in La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. The music used here, however, is not from Massenet’s opera – it’s an amalgam of assorted Massenet music, opera and otherwise (but not Manon), which fits the ballet like a glove, balletic arias and all.
As modified in MacMillan’s libretto, the story of Manon may not be familiar. In tongue–in-cheek summary, the ballet tells of young Manon Lescaut, who is on her way to a convent. Her carriage stops in a gathering place (the crowded courtyard of an inn; maybe the equivalent of an 18th Century urban town square) where she meets her brother Lescaut (in Massenet’s opera, Lescaut is her cousin), who spends his time pondering ways to make money, and focusing on matching attractive women with older men for the equivalent of a finder’s fee and the promise of more riches to come. In other words, he’s a Belle Époque pimp. [In the ballet’s initial scene, Lescaut is seen isolated within the action that surrounds him: the scheming outsider.] Either willingly or under her brother’s influence, Manon becomes one of his lures – with the particular target being a rich bon vivant and foot fetishist, Monsieur G.M. While in the process of seducing the already seduced Monsieur G.M., Manon spies Des Grieux, a bookish young student, and immediately falls in love. [In the novel, Des Grieux is no innocent, and his relationship with Manon, which his family disapproves due to Manon’s questionable character, apparently is a given.] Upon seeing her he’s immediately besotted as well, and faster than you can say Romeo and Juliet they run off to Des Grieux’s apartment and its waiting bed.
Not willing to give up on his financial bonanza, Lescaut finds them, bringing Monsieur G.M. with him (conveniently, after Des Grieux dashed off — maybe a post-tryst need for a cigarette or two). Fully equipped with furs and jewels and abetted by Lescaut, Monsieur G.M. convinces Manon that a life of loveless luxury with a perfumed pompous pervert beats a life of poverty and puppy love. Finding Manon gone when he returns, Des Grieux gets just a little upset. Lescaut attempts to buy his acceptance with some of the money Monsieur G.M. paid in commission, but the morally upright Des Grieux repeatedly rejects the offer — until Lescaut convinces him with a stranglehold.
In Act II, Manon has become Monsieur G.M.’s trophy companion. While at a “party” given by her wealth provider at a “Peculiar Hotel,” which could pass as a high class 19th Century bordello complete with Madame, courtesans, and prospective customers, it’s quickly apparent that Manon enjoys being in the company of courtesan temptresses — and is good at being one herself. Des Grieux just happens to be there. Manon resists, but ultimately yields to her love for Des Grieux. They plan to escape Monsieur G.M. and still acquire a measure of his wealth via a card game fixed by Lescaut, but Monsieur G.M. figures out that he’s been had – not just by Lescaut but by Des Grieux and Manon as well, and begins fighting back. With a sword. Manon and Des Grieux escape — back to Des Grieux’s apartment, which consequently made it easy for Monsieur G.M. to find them, bringing with him the local constabulary. Monsieur G.M. kills Lescaut, and has the gendarmes arrest Manon for being a prostitute. Des Grieux follows her into custody, and in Act III, eventually to exile in an American penal colony in Louisiana run by a despicable Jailer, who promptly finds Manon to be the pick of the deported prostitute litter, and forces himself on her. Enraged, Des Grieux stabs and kills him. Manon and Des Grieux escape to a fetid, foggy bayou where Manon dies of starvation or illness or heat stroke or being handled like a sack of potatoes.
I’ve joked about the story, but to be clear, there’s nothing funny about Manon (except a wonderfully comic solo by a drunken Lescaut that morphs into an hilarious duet with his courtesan mistress). The ballet is a cornucopia of passion and action that rarely stops — except for too many curtain-closing between scene musical interludes that interrupt the flow.
In the usual Manon portrayals I’ve seen, she’s depicted as a novice but willing courtesan-to-be from the beginning, easily motivated to seduce older rich men by her brother, but probably inclined to do it all along. Maybe it’s a family trait – and maybe her family sent her to a convent to insulate her from her temptations rather than from any religious conviction. In any event, it’s Manon’s suffering that people most remember, rather than the fact (to an extent abetted by Lescaut) that she brought it on herself.
This was the sense I got from Seo’s and Boylston’s Manon – totally consistent with other portrayals I’ve seen, and with what audiences have come to expect. But Seo added something extra, a convincing (perhaps a bit overly convincing) sensuality, that Boylston lacked. [Now if only Seo could exude that quality when she dances Odile.] I find it difficult to believe that this was Seo’s debut; she looked that comfortable in the role, and was that accomplished. [She’d previously danced the Act I bedroom pas de deux, with Stearns, at the most recent Youth America Grand Prix Gala, and looked equally accomplished then.] I’m not hedging here; Seo’s Manon was brilliant and moving — but it was the portrayal audiences expect. Bolle, who was to celebrate his “Farewell” ABT performance three nights later (and who was Ferri’s partner in those 2007 Manons), started off a bit rusty-looking but quickly delivered a first-rate Des Grieux, topped off by a ballet-ending scream that rivaled that of MacMillan’s Juliet. The other Des Grieux’s didn’t scream – Bolle’s portrayal was far more effective.
Seo’s Manon was also incalculably aided by James Whiteside’s Lescaut. No matter what Seo’s inclinations from the outset might have been, Whiteside made it look like he made her do it. It was an amazing performance by Whiteside – by far the best among the several performances of Lescaut I can recall (including the superb portrayal by Cornejo several years ago), and by far the best performance that I’ve seen from Whiteside to date. He was a force; he ripped up the stage; he was dominant in the scenes he was in. Stella Abrera also gave an extraordinary, outsized performance as Lescaut’s mistress.
On Wednesday night, Boylston and Hallberg delivered very fine performances as well. Had one not seen Seo’s Manon (and Lane’s on Tuesday), one might have found it as emotionally devastating as it needs to be. But it’s a question of degree and characterization preference. I sensed the “courtesan-in-training” character immediately, and found it difficult to build up sympathy for her notwithstanding the passion she displayed with Hallberg, the quality of her execution, and the built-in sympathy that Act III provides. Her portrayal also lacked the detail that both Seo and Lane added, too often looking aloof and flat rather than seductive. Hallberg did a very fine job with his introductory Act I solos, and his partnering throughout; his Act I was by far the best of the three. But in Act III, his classical purity was much too evident, which, while legitimately captivating to Manon in Act I, diminished the concluding scene’s impact by simply looking too classically perfect.
Lane’s Manon was a Manon of a different color, and to me it worked on a profound level. This Manon had a purity, and a vulnerability, about her from the beginning that fit both Lane’s stage persona and the story, and that made the whole ballet far more complex than one where Manon is a willing courtesan / seducer as soon as she leaves her carriage. In the end, this characterization made her performance even more heart-wrenching than Seo’s, and far more tragic. As finely wrought as Seo’s Act III was (and it definitely was), Lane’s took it to another dimension of suffering and anguish. I will never forget the way Guillem looked when she first appeared in Act III — it sent shivers up and down my spine, and I suspect the spines of others in that audience as well. Lane’s was the equal of that, with the added layer of vulnerability and not-her-fault tragedy. [I’m not an expert in classic literature, but to me, a monstrously sad event may not, by itself, be tragic in the classic sense based solely on suffering. It requires a fall from a high (or blameless) position, perhaps based on a personality trait beyond the character’s control.] She was not a broken woman who made bad choices and who’d reached bottom; she was all that, but she was also a broken spirit who didn’t know what hit her. I have only one relatively silly observation: when you’re dying in the bayou, straightening your skirt should be the last thing on your (or your distraught lover’s) mind.
The problem with the Lane / Cornejo Manon on Tuesday was in their Act I, where to my eye they both were deferring to Cornejo’s recent injury – this was his first ABT performance this 2019 Met Season (its 6th week), and until the last minute no one I’d spoken with seemed certain that he’d be available for this one. Though the bravura stuff in the pas de deux was maintained and done well, and the passion during the pas de deux was off the charts, the energy flow when they danced together was less powerful than between Seo and Bolle: it appeared to me that they physically held back a bit. It may not have been noticeable to those who only saw Tuesday’s performance, but it appeared that way by comparison. Gradually, however, as the evening progressed Cornejo seemed to become more secure, and the rest of the ballet was superbly done by both of them. My observation appeared accurate – on Friday evening, Lane and Cornejo’s Act I, while emotionally the same, was far more physically powerful. However, Cornejo’s next appearance in Manon needs to be handled somewhat differently. When Bolle and Hallberg first entered in Act I, they stood out, and were immediately recognized by the audience. Cornejo blended in too well, and in both performances few in the audience acknowledged his entrance.
At Tuesday’s performance, Cassandra Trenary as Lescaut’s mistress was too tentative – especially compared to Abrera the previous night. I observed the same with Christine Shevchenko’s portrayal on Wednesday. But Trenary’s portrayal improved markedly in Friday’s performance, which was imbued with the depth of character missing from Tuesday’s portrayal, and I suspect an additional outing would have resulted in the same improvement in Shevchenko’s portrayal. And Blaine Hoven, who danced Lescaux at each of the performances I saw except Monday’s (filling in for the injured Daniil Simkin on Tuesday), lacked Whiteside’s venom. Like Trenary, his characterization improved through the week, but overall he was far too likeable. Roman Zhurbin’s Monsieur G.M. delivered the essential callous and sleazy pomposity; Keith Roberts’s portrayal was less strong. And as the Jailer, all three portrayals I saw (Alexandre Hammoudi, Zhurbin, and Thomas Forster) were top-flight vicious.
But it’s the execution and characterization of Manon that makes or breaks this ballet. Boylston’s was perfectly adequate, but the sensuality and the character nuances didn’t compare with those of Seo or Lane. And with Lane adding the dimension of vulnerability and betrayed innocence, together with the accepted wisdom that this role might have been too much of a stretch for her, her portrayal was the most memorable. Once again, Lane’s performance exceeded even the wildest expectations – in this case, to an extent that would have seemed incomprehensible. She provided the palpable passion in Act I (as did the other Manons), walked the character tightrope in Act II perfectly (as did Seo, but in a different, more complexly nuanced knowing way), and in Act III, delivered a performance for the ages. Again. It was as memorable in its way as was as her mad scene in Giselle last year: it was that good. And if there were yet any lingering doubts that Lane could handle the technical and emotional components of being a compelling Juliet, her Manon dispelled them.