Manon, Royal Opera House, London

Nadine Meisner
Wednesday 05 February 2003 01:00

Even if you are resistant to the charms of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, there is no escape. Manon is everywhere: in America, in Russia, in Australia, in Continental Europe – and here in England, where, for 28 years, she has returned season after season to the Royal Opera House. Clearly it is the narrative that attracts audiences, a romantic tragedy in which Des Grieux loves Manon through thick and thin, only to watch her die.

Personally, I've always found the ballet's treatment of the story to be crass, and Massenet's music ineffectual – its flaccid sentimentality redeemed only by the heart-tugging theme attributed to Manon. But then two French guest dancers, Sylvie Guillem and Laurent Hilaire (replacing an injured Jonathan Cope), came along. Their partnership has always been fabulous in this and other ballets, an inspired interaction that creates fresh dramatic verisimilitude. But here they so transformed the ballet it seemed completely new. Suddenly, for the first time ever, I was utterly moved. Although the pas de deux and solos have always been Manon's strongest points, they had never seemed so beautiful, their repeated moves building an internal rhythm that communicated an emotional inevitability. And Manon's high lifts, limbs extended like compass points, had a piercing, poignant eloquence, that has frozen her image in my memory forever.

This is what comes of having two thinking dancers who achieve a rapport so close that the Manon/Des Grieux relationship has never seemed so intense and understandable. Compared to the same day's matinée cast of Jamie Tapper and David Makhateli (another guest), they really illuminated aspects of the story, such as Manon's renunciation of material wealth. And then there was the wonder of their dancing: Guillem's effortlessly inflected phrasing; Hilaire, who not only has the looks to provoke heart palpitations, but is also moving better than ever, powering through Des Grieux's adagio solos with sustained smoothness and space-conquering amplitude.

Those solos were created for Sir Anthony Dowell, who now returns as the nasty Monsieur GM. Welcome as his debut is, he needs to tone down the deranged, sliding eyes and baroque rictus if he's not to head towards a titter-inducing grotesqueness. Marianela Nuñez made Lescaut's mistress into an attractive personality and Brian Maloney produced a strong impact as Lescaut thanks to vigorous dancing and better comic timing than the matinée's Martin Harvey. In fact, the matinée suffered from blandness overall, with Tapper's Manon offering no surprises and Makhateli bringing a long arabesque line, but little personality. Better to watch Ashley Page as the jailer, making his farewell appearances at Covent Garden before beginning his new role as Scottish Ballet's artistic director.

To 6 March (020-7304 4000)

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