Dresden Semperoper Ballett, Semperoper, Dresden, Germany
November 7, 2015

Maggie Foyer

Melissa Hamilton and Jiří Bubeníček in Manon Photo Ian Whalen

Melissa Hamilton and Jiří Bubeníček in Manon
Photo Ian Whalen

Dresden played Manon like a wonderful storybook: a real page turner, as scene after scene unfolded: the salons, the streets and the bedrooms, all peopled with a fascinating array of vivid characters. Peter Farmer’s, sets and costumes, on loan from the Australian Ballet found a fitting home in the ornate setting of the Semperoper.

But this was no exercise in window dressing, the jewel in the crown was the quality of the dance. The roles of Manon and Des Grieux provide challenges not only physically – in some of MacMillan’s most passionate pas de deux – but dramatically in the way they define the characters and the psychological play between them. The pairing of Royal Ballet principal, Melissa Hamilton, guesting for the season and Jiří Bubeníček could hardly have been bettered. Bubeníček reaches the end of his performing career with one further performance of the ballet and this role makes a fitting climax.

Hamilton found a great deal of subtext in her flighty courtesan. The kittenish stretch of a foot and the sensual unfolding of her arms mask the pragmatic calculations she is constantly having to make. Her intense gaze at the rumpled bed before leaving to enter a world of untold wealth spoke volumes and cut to the quick. This conflict was also evident in her ambiguous focus in her Act Two solo. Gorgeously dressed she dances for Monsieur G.M., the haughty Raphaël Coumes-Marquet but she is ever conscious of Des Grieux hovering on the sidelines. His anguish is heightened as she is displayed and paraded by the young men in one of MacMillan’s most sensual choreographic moments. Manon sustains her enigmatic demeanour, spurring Monsieur G.M. to consolidate her fidelity with the gift of a diamond bracelet.

Paris 1731 was a brutal place for those living on their wits in the world of the demi-mondaine as Manon and her brother Lescaut find to their cost. In this world Des Grieux’s honesty in love (if not at cards) sets him apart. Bubeníček gave to the role a depth of emotion that was overwhelming. Rather than a poetic figure new to love, he played Des Grieux as a man who knows, and understands, the value of true love. His first eloquent solo sets the tone of deep sincerity in clean, carefully placed steps. If some of the subsequent solos are less convincing choreographically, Bubeníček’s passionate attack conquered all.

Melissa Hamilton and Jiří Bubeníček Photo Ian Whalen

Melissa Hamilton and Jiří Bubeníček
Photo Ian Whalen

Svetlana Gileva Photo Ian Whalen

Svetlana Gileva
Photo Ian Whalen

Denis Veginy, as Lescaut, bounded through the role with the agility and wit of a true survivor. He displayed a remarkably buoyant jump and fearsome stretch to his feet while mining the depth of both drama and comedy. His drunken solo was a joy as was the subsequent duet with Svetlana Gileva, playing his mistress. Gileva gave a scintillating performance, giving full value to each movement as well as sustaining clean classical positions when needed, notably in the pas de deux, where the timing demanded, and achieved, knife-edge accuracy.

Semperoper Ballet are a generous company: giving their all at each performance. There was plenty of scope for all levels of talent. Coumes-Marquet is as heartless and carnal a creature as you hope never to meet. Dressed to high fashion perfection, he sneers at all beneath him, toying with his ruby ring as he eyes his other prize possession, Manon. The beggar crew, led by an ebullient Craig Davidson, injected the opening scene with energy and excitement while each of the ladies, who cater to all tastes at Madame’s Hôtel particulier, danced as though she, too, was in line for a diamond bracelet.

In MacMillan narrative ballets it is the duets that are the beating heart. The fine-tuned balance that Hamilton and Bubeníček found in the pas de deux made this a performance to remember. In the final traumatic scene, all artifice was stripped away leaving just raw pain in a breathless theatre before the audience responded with rapturous applause.

Jules Massenet’s music played by the illustrious Staatskapelle orchestra under Paul Connelly brought the finishing touch to an exceptional ballet evening.