Sir Kenneth MacMillan was the master at full length narrative ballets packed with emotional power, from the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to the intense psychodrama of Mayerling. His storytelling is seen at its finest in his 1974 creation, Manon. Indeed, despite lacking the St Sulpice scene where Manon seduces her way back into the heart of the Chevalier des Grieux, MacMillan’s ballet tells Abbé Prévost’s histoire a good deal better than operatic versions by Puccini and Massenet. No Royal Ballet season is complete without MacMillan, so Manon made for a most welcome opener.

Sarah Lamb (Manon) and Vadim Muntagirov (des Grieux) © ROH | Alice Pennefather (2014)
Sarah Lamb (Manon) and Vadim Muntagirov (des Grieux)
© ROH | Alice Pennefather (2014)

Germaine Greer once described the Manon of Prévost’s novel as “emotionally inert, a giggling empty-headed minx”. There’s a far wider range required on stage. The ballerina playing Manon has to be the supreme actress, depicting her switch from innocent convent girl to romantic lover to avaricious courtesan, greedy for just a few more jewels before she can afford to leave her sugar daddy and return to the noble, but penniless, des Grieux. She’s a flawed heroine, difficult to love. Sarah Lamb managed this switch well, her wide-eyed ingénue stepping from the coach as she arrives in Paris, full of innocence, coyly falling for Vadim Muntagirov’s equally innocent chevalier.

But she ditches des Grieux with alacrity to accept furs and jewels from Monsieur GM, coiling herself around Lescaut (her brother and pimp) and the elderly roué in a queasy pas de trois. By Act 2, there was an aloofness about Lamb’s Manon that was chilling, especially the icy glint in her eye as she snubs des Grieux; perhaps diamonds really are a girl’s best friend. Eventually deciding to elope, Lamb’s look of horror as Muntagirov rips off her sparkling bracelet is telling – why can’t she have him and her riches? It’s only in Act 3 that we feel Manon’s tragedy. Deported as a prostitute to New Orleans, she silently suffers at the hands – and groin – of Gary Avis’ lascivious gaoler before des Grieux stabs him, forcing them to flee. Her death, in the swamps of Louisiana, haunted by the ghosts of her past, sees her tossed around like a rag-doll. Hollow-eyed, hair shorn, Lamb caught Manon's pain perfectly.

Sarah Lamb (Manon) and Vadim Muntagirov (des Grieux) © ROH | Alice Pennefather (2014)
Sarah Lamb (Manon) and Vadim Muntagirov (des Grieux)
© ROH | Alice Pennefather (2014)

Vadim Muntagirov was her noble, but impoverished chevalier, moving with eloquent fluidity and a sensitive partner to Lamb throughout. His acting continues to grow in assurance, although his “poker face” would convince very few when he cheats at cards. Ryoichi Hirano was fabulous as Lescaut, displaying a wide range of emotions, painfully funny in his drunken pas de deux with his unamused mistress, the delicious Itziar Mendizabal. Christopher Saunders was an oleaginous Monsieur GM, groping Lamb’s legs, sniffing her pointe shoes, oozing with lust and entitlement. The corps – including thieves and harlots already familiar from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – danced terrifically, each given their own back story.

Gary Avis (Monsieur GM) and Sarah Lamb (Manon) © ROH | Alice Pennefather (2014)
Gary Avis (Monsieur GM) and Sarah Lamb (Manon)
© ROH | Alice Pennefather (2014)

A few years ago, Martin Yates beefed up the orchestration of Leighton Lucas’ miraculous patchwork score, drawn from a number of Massenet operas – but not Manon itself – and suites. Koen Kessels conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House with distinction, revelling in the plush orchestration, ensuring that, 45 years after its premiere, Manon remains as irresistible as ever.

****1