It was the opening night of The Royal Ballet’s new season and London’s Royal Opera House was abuzz with anticipation. During the summer, the company had flown the flag for English ballet on a highly successful tour to Moscow, Taiwan and Shanghai. And on the stage of the historic Bolshoi Theatre, before its very knowledgeable Russian ballet public, the dancers received rapturous applause for their performances of MacMillan’s well-loved ballet Manon. Now it was time for the company to impress its public back home. And impress it did. 

Manon celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It is one of those ballets you can see over and over again, the reasons being the wonderful music, MacMillan’s exciting choreography, his depth of characters and the surging emotions on stage, which flow over into the audience.  Its heroine is beautiful and charming but amoral, sensual and greedy for riches. Set in France, its forceful and dramatic scenario proffers everything from love, lust and pimping to murder and banishment. It ends tragically in the moss-draped swamps of Louisiana. The choreographer’s fast-paced, physically demanding and often fiendishly challenging choreography offers its many characters copious scope to define their mostly tainted and tawdry roles. Based on the 18th century romantic novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost, the ballet relates the downwards spiral of a young girl, initially en route to a convent – though it’s immediately obvious that she was never going to make a nun! Awakening to the fact that her beauty and charm attracts men like bees to a honey pot, and looking at the wealth around her, she determines never to lead a life of poverty. Her roguish brother Lescaut easily entices her into a relationship with the wealthy gentleman Monsieur G.M., who offers her jewels and furs in exchange for sexual favours and companionship. But then she meets des Grieux, a young divinity student. They are immediately attracted to each other and run off together. But greed will out. When a necklace of dripping diamonds and a full-length ermine coat are bestowed on her by Monsieur G.M., she leaves her meagre love-nest with scarcely a look back. She begins to believe that immorality and riches bestow a far more satisfying happiness.

The role of Manon is one that most classical ballerinas crave to dance. It offers incredible opportunities to show exceptional technical abilities, along with the dramatic development of the character. And with this tragic heroine, there is a vast palate of emotions to work with. It requires a special ballerina to bring every facet of the young girl to reality – and this was certainly evident in the performance of Marianela Nuñez.

The Argentinean principal is a wonder to watch. Totally immersed in her role, she acted – or rather, lived – every moment of Manon’s tragic life. At her entrance, she expressed innocent joy with sparkling eyes and a happy grin, then, with des Grieux, her whole being thrilled with passionate delight – (it looked as though she stifled a ‘wow’ after one long ardent kiss!) When she put on the full-length fur coat, her whole demeanour changed with the realisation that this was what she wanted more than penniless love. At Madame’s hôtel particulier, she enjoyed the attention and flirtations of all the men, but like a minx, she seductively played up to Monsieur G.M. (Christopher Saunders) and was rewarded with a diamond bracelet. However, later as a convict in New Orleans her whole body shook with revulsion when the lascivious Gaoler (well played by Gary Avis) demanded carnal gratification. (MacMillan can be very graphic in his choreography.) Escaping to the swamps, she was like a rag doll in her last moments with des Grieux. As an actress she scored highly. And as a ballerina, she proved herself outstanding.  Blessed with a pliable body, beautiful feet and true musicality, Nuñez’ dancing is as natural to her as breathing and her movements were graceful and fluid throughout the whole ballet – even when she was constantly turned upside down and ‘dropped’ by the men in Madame’s parlour.

Italian Federico Bonelli is a stylish young dancer with long limbs and a refined sleek and silky technique, and he proved a strong partner and a sympathetic des Grieux. He performed the initial technically difficult slow solo, with its long poses in arabesques and cat-like jumps, with commendable elegance and control, and he was faultless in all the high lifts and partnering of Nuñez. While his acting was far from her high standard, he conveyed the devotions of a lovesick young man well. The couples’ two contrasting pas de deux – one of youthful passion after their first night together, the other as Manon lies dying in the swamps – were spine tingling to watch when their bodies melded together and emotions were high.  

Ricardo Cervera was the rogue Lescaut, showing off his neat high jumps and torpedo spins with great relish. His drunken scene with his mistress (Laura Morera) was full of fun and cleverly performed by both. She is a spunky dancer in this role and looked as though she thoroughly enjoyed it. Elizabeth McGorian offered a prim but business-like Madame; James Hay was a tumbling, speedy Beggar Chief, and Yuhui Choe, Helen Crawford, Sian Murphy and Lara Turk made sexy courtesans, flashing their eyes at all the men who came in search of fun.

The music used for the ballet is a delightful and atmospheric compilation from many of Massenet’s scores, (though there is nothing from his opera Manon). The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Martin Yates, played strongly throughout, the music surging along with the overpowering passions on stage.