Opera House, Oslo
September 19, 2015
Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut was a well-travelled girl and Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon travels even further this season with productions in Houston, Dresden and a premiere in Oslo with the Norwegian National Ballet.
It was an evening of high emotion, effervescing in a potent mix of splendour and destitution. The teeming city life and opulent salons offer rich pickings for a company of fine dance/ actors. Unfortunately the design elements contributed little to the atmosphere giving the dancers negligible support.
Manon is a challenging role for the ballerina, more used to roles that easily engage an audience’s sympathy. Her choice of jewels over true love is the antithesis of the romantic ideal. Yolanda Correa and Yoel Carreño in the leads found their own unique interpretations.
Correa’s entrance had the freshness of a spring morning. Her vivacity, her sunny smile and her eagerness to please mark her out as the gentlemen’s plaything. While Des Grieux, who has nobler intentions, is also besotted. It is Manon’s downfall that she wants it all, both love and wealth, and is strangely naïve in believing she can achieve this, a quality that adds to her charm.
MacMillan transformed the pas de deux from ballet showpiece to X-rated drama and the duets in Manon are no exception. The luscious bedroom duet in Act 1 is one of his loveliest. Correa from her first teasing to her final rapturous dive onto the bed is a girl in love with love and Carreño is captivated. In effortlessly executed lifts that swirl and flow they give full expression to their feelings.
Des Grieux values love as something pure and deep so he has a rude awakening when faced with the morals of the demi-mondaine society that Manon has bought into. The salon in Act 2, despite the perfumed luxury, exudes a rancid air of moral bankruptcy. In slow motion the richly attired Manon is paraded and borne aloft by a bevy of male admirers. This act was distinguished by superb dancing. Melissa Hough as Lescaut’s mistress, cool, contained and perfectly poised has learnt how to survive. Correa, fresher on the scene, has not yet acquired the jaded air of the women who love to order and had the audience, as well as the onstage gallants, in her thrall.
Lucas Lima as her brother, Lescaut, excelled in this dazzling role. From the opening he stakes out his patch as wheeler dealer in an unsavoury trade, a villain of captivating charm. His drunken antics and the pas de deux with Hough matched virtuoso technique with high comedy and was little short of brilliant.
The character of Monsieur G.M. is one of the finest in the ballet repertoire. Ole Willy Falkhaugen created a compelling creature totally lacking in any vestige of humanity, every gesture enforcing his power and cruelty: brilliant and repugnant. The other meaty role is the Gaoler played by Andreas Heise. A brutal custodian of a brutal system, he exploits every move in the choreography, especially in his sadistic duet with Manon, now at her most vulnerable.
Scandinavian theatre has a reputation for excellent design and lighting but on this score Manon was a real disappointment. The lighting, bold and bright, bleached the drama out of this dark tale, throwing a spotlight where brooding shadows were needed while the sets and costumes seemed to have their own agenda. There was little concession to period cut in the costumes. The very distinctive eighteenth century square neckline and corseted bodice which marries so well with the ballet aesthetic was ignored in a confusion of bright floral prints.
Poverty, filth and misery are seldom part of ballet narrative and Manon particularly needs help on this score. The dancers struggled to create the characterisations in the sanitized streets and the beggars scrubbed up in uniform fatigues looked unconvincing. This was tragic as, led by Gakuro Matsui, the thieves danced to a gold standard, leaping with vigour and so well co-ordinated.
The evening rode on the passion of the two lovers and built to a heart-rending climax. In the final pas de deux, having lost wealth, health and freedom, they cling to each other in despair as Manon finally realises, but tragically too late, the value of love.
On Dansportalen, Maggie Foyer talks to Norwegian National Ballet’s American dancer Melissa Hough and Dutch dancer Douwe Dekkers, about dancing Manon and De Grieux.