Review: MANON, Royal Opera House

A haunting exploration of desire and sexuality

By: Jan. 18, 2024
Review: MANON, Royal Opera House
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Review: MANON, Royal Opera House

Review: MANON, Royal Opera House Ever since its first production in 1974, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon has been a staple of modern ballet. This revival shows why. With Francesca Hayward’s stunning reprisal as the titular character and atmospheric designs by Nicholas Georgiadis, it’s a haunting exploration of desire and sexuality within a beautiful performance.

Underlined by Massenet’s beautiful music, MacMillan’s choreography is always on par with some extraordinary dancing that not only captures the grace of human movement, but also a lot of the grit and misery found in the story. Manon is quite literally handed from one man to the next as she suffers the abuse of her torturers; and the general feeling of melancholy in act three is permanently palpable.

The set emphasises the crass differences in wealth by contrasting the pompous extravagance of the wealthy with the poverty of the masses. It’s a hauntingly realistic-feeling representation of the 18th century in which grey and beige rag-wearing beggars and ratcatchers are pushed towards the background as the rich gentlemen in their fine coats and expensive materials conquer the space - and the plot.

It is precisely this conflict between rich and poor that makes Manon an interesting character. Rather than just being a passive pauper who is forced against her will to elope with Monsieur GM (Gary Avis), she attempts to use her sexual power and GM’s infatuation with her to trick him out of his money. Although she falls hopelessly in love with Des Grieux (Marcelino Sambé), what she mainly discovers is the power that she possesses - a power that she then abuses at her own peril.

Hayward’s portrayal is nothing short of astonishing. Each of the character’s different modes are portrayed perfectly. In act 1, she starts delicately and carefully, full of wide-eyed innocence. Then, during her dance with Des Grieux, she grows more confident to the point of ecstasy as she throws herself on the bed, sure of her victory. During the scenes with GM at the end of Act 1 and during Act 2 she is almost arrogant in the way she presents herself, certain that she will succeed in escaping poverty through her con. And finally, in Act 3, we receive the complete reversal with a Hayward who looks downtrodden and lost.

Her rapport with Sambé is equally powerful. Sambé himself is charming and lighthearted; he displays a constant elegance that makes him perfect as the suitor and tragic hero who does his best to save Manon, but ultimately fails. Flawlessly, he lifts Hayward and dances with her in a beautiful spectacle that leaves the audience breathless at the conclusion. It’s almost poetry.

This is simply a production that works; all the pieces are in place. From the bombastic designs to the gorgeous music - played to perfection by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Koen Kessels - and a stellar cast, it’s wonderful.

Manon is at the Royal Opera House until 8 March 2024. 

Photo Credits: Foteini Christofilopoulou


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