Mercury is in retrograde, apparently. Many people believe that the astrological impact of this planet appearing to move backwards creates a destabilising effect here on Earth, making our plans go awry. It may seem this way at The Royal Ballet, having lost David Hallberg, intended guest star for both of this year’s back-to-back revivals of Giselle and Manon, to injury, after the opening act of his first performance in the former ballet. This misfortune was followed by Laura Morera being unable to perform the title role on this opening night of the latter ballet. A huge pity since this marvellous dancer can’t have many more such limelight nights to come.

C. Saunders (Monsieur GM), F. Hayward (Manon), A. Campbell (Lescaut) in <i>Manon</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH, 2018
C. Saunders (Monsieur GM), F. Hayward (Manon), A. Campbell (Lescaut) in Manon
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2018

But, for every cloud, there is a silver lining; and just as Matthew Ball stepped in – to great acclaim - to complete Hallberg’s portrayal of Albrecht, so Francesca Hayward – with a few days’ more notice – substituted for Morera; delivering an outstanding performance in this signature role at The Royal Ballet. 

We now take it for granted that Hayward is a sublime dancer with that indefinable whisper of greatness. Her movements seem so spontaneous that one forgets the discipline of the choreography she enacts. And her acting is also a joy, replete with special moments, glances and gestures that help the audience to understand this most complex of characters: a young woman desperate to avoid the austerity of the convent; pimped by her brother to the highest bidder (the fate of the underbidder is to be beaten by a mob); but simultaneously falling in love with an idealistic young student.  

In the pivotal scene where Manon is persuaded to give up her student for the promise of being a kept woman by the lascivious, reptilian Monsieur G.M (the kind of man for whom the guillotine was an appropriate end), Hayward tempers her fascination with diamonds and fur with moments of sad reflection; bending down to smell the pillow on which her lover’s head has recently rested. Every role that Hayward touches turns to gold and this important piece of The Royal Ballet’s heritage is now firmly in her joint tenure. Anticipating how she can further refine and develop the role is a fascinating prospect for the next decade.

Manon is truly an ensemble ballet with most of the company on stage in any one performance and everyone has a character. There is so much happening in the first scene of each act (courtyard/ bordello/ quayside) that it would take multiple viewings to untangle each of a thousand references and it is a joy to follow the various interactions in the peripheral action.  After many viewings, I still discover something new and rewarding amongst the throng of uncredited supporting roles.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of performing with a different partner, I did not fully warm to Federico Bonelli’s Des Grieux (the student with whom Manon falls in love). His reading is of a diffident, shy, bookish young man – which is fine, for Des Grieux is no heroic figure, rather pathetic, in fact; dominated by Manon’s unscrupulous brother, Lescaut, and happy to stab the unarmed gaoler in the back. Bonelli brings a certain authentic capriciousness to Des Grieux but I found touches of awkwardness in his dancing and partnering, in this most challenging of roles, perhaps partly explained by Hayward’s late engagement.

Francesca Hayward (Manon) in <i>Manon</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH, 2018
Francesca Hayward (Manon) in Manon
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2018

Hayward’s frequent dance partner, Alexander Campbell performed the role of Lescaut and one wonders why he has not been given the opportunity to perform as Des Grieux (particularly when The Royal Ballet has drafted in two guests for that purpose). Campbell gave an excellent account of the laddish (and brutish) Lescaut, encompassing an admirable “drunken” performance of the Bordello solo and duet with his prostitute mistress (a seductive account by Claire Calvert). Christopher Saunders was frighteningly good as the nasty, foot-fetishist G.M.; Elizabeth McGorian was especially alluring as the Madame; and Gary Avis brought a nonchalant air of malevolence to the role of the abusive New Orleans’ Gaoler. The Royal Opera House Orchestra gave a fine performance of the tapestry Massenet score, under the direction of its latest orchestrator, Martin Yates.     

All that being said, I have to record a feeling that this opening night was slightly under-powered, with some of the pivotal dances less than slickly delivered, punctuated by moments of hesitation and awkwardness spoiling the flow, sometimes barely perceptible, but enough to make a difference.  

Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet is now more than 40 years old – performed here as an extension to the celebration of its choreographer’s career, 25 years after his death – and a leaky narrative, plus a casual attitude towards generic brutality and male abuse of women, makes it very much a creature of another time. It is a classic ballet but I wonder - with rapidly changing attitudes - how long that will pertain.