This was like meeting an old friend after a facelift. Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon has appeared almost 300 times at the Royal Opera House, but London has rarely seen it quite like this, in this revival by English National Ballet. Mia Stensgaard’s designs are hardly new – they were commissioned for the Royal Danish Ballet back in 2003, and were first borrowed by ENB shortly thereafter. But, it is still a shock. The familiar Georgiadis sets have gone, to be replaced by a few rudimentary, moveable flats as a base description for each scene. It’s like coming home to find that the furniture’s been stolen and the wallpaper's been changed!

James Streeter, Alina Cojocaru, jeffrey Cirio in ENB's <i>Manon</i> © Laurent Liotardo
James Streeter, Alina Cojocaru, jeffrey Cirio in ENB's Manon
© Laurent Liotardo

A more welcome revision is Martin Yates’ holistic orchestration, which has improved upon the original pick-and-mix Massenet medley arranged by Leighton Lucas and Hilda Gaunt (their composite score being completed just days before the 1974 première). Yates’ new account is a refreshing update. The familiar melodies are there but each musical section now seems intimately interconnected and of relevance to the whole. Perhaps, more importantly, the music now appears completely in tune with the dramatic action on stage, and between scenes. It was sumptuously performed by the ENB Philharmonic, conducted by Gavin Sutherland.

Stensgaard’s designs may present an unfamiliar wrapping, but the performance content was of a rare and unimpeachable quality. This was consistently true throughout the cast but it was topped by a triumphant delivery of the title role by Alina Cojocaru. Here was a deep dive into this most complex of ballet’s tragic heroines (and there are plenty to choose from), finely nuancing every moment she is on stage as if Cojocaru has enriched the patina of being Manon by adding another layer of dramatic veneer to each performance (as I have no doubt that she does).

Cojocaru has an uncanny knack of exposing MacMillan’s inner world of emotions with immaculate clarity. She draws one’s attention at all times, even when others are dancing and she is not. I had to force myself to admire the dancing gentlemen (a trio of ENB’s fast-rising stars, Aitor Arrieta, Daniel McCormick and Ken Saruhashi) in the ‘hotel of ill repute’ because the impact of Cojocaru’s mimed story-telling from the sidelines was so compelling.

A part of the greatness of this ballet is the expressive freedom dancers have to own their characters in different ways and in Cojocaru’s heartfelt performance, we see an extraordinary array of emotions from the moment she steps from the carriage, no longer destined for any convent but lured by the conflicting ambitions of love and avarice, and torn between pleasing an unwholesome brother and a virtuous lover. We feel every essence of her desire for furs and jewels, her pain at abandoning Des Grieux, the urgency of their reunion and their desperate final flight.

Katja Khaniukova and Jeffrey Cirio in ENB's <i>Manon</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Katja Khaniukova and Jeffrey Cirio in ENB's Manon
© Laurent Liotardo

I have been watching this dancer for twenty years and her capacity to be youthful with conviction remains exceptional and to perform youthfully with such a wealth of experience brings extraordinary and compelling artistry.

In this performance, Cojocaru’s excellence as Manon was complemented by her partnership with Joseph Caley bringing an intriguing mix of naivety and nobility to the hapless Des Grieux, whose studies are fatally interrupted by falling for Manon. The duets between Caley and Cojocaru were passionate and dynamic – in the bedroom pas de deux of Act 1, he spins ferociously with Cojocaru wrapped around his neck, as if she were no heavier than a scarf.

These leading performances were well-matched by others of distinction throughout the cast. James Streeter was outstanding as Monsieur G.M, the perverted, powdered popinjay who “buys” Manon; Jeffrey Cirio continues to impress, with a convincing performance as the rapacious, chauvinistic Lescaut, a mercenary who beats his girlfriend and pimps his sister to the highest bidder, ordering the beggars to despatch the under bidder (a doddery performance by legendary character artist, Michael Coleman) when he is of no more value. Fabian Reimair brought a chilling air of bored detachment to the role of the rapist gaoler.

Katja Khaniukova gave yet another eye-opening performance as Lescaut’s Mistress. Like Cojocaru, she is a graduate of the Kiev State Choreographic Institute and the crystalline elegance of her technique is perfectly integrated with the seductive appeal of the reigning courtesan. At least she was queen of the courtyard until the arrival of Manon and Khaniukova brings a refined emphasis to this rivalry of the allure.

The puffball tutus of l’Hôtel particulier and the striped bodices of the women by the New Orleans quayside are particularly jarring, but utilitarian sets and some disconcerting costuming are easily overlooked in a performance that overflows with such rich detailing in every role.



*****