Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon Lescaut was mainly dancing her way out of poverty; beauty was her only currency. Interestingly enough, La Scala’s take on a subversive ballet translated into a brilliant blend of  homemade commedia dell'arte and stylish splendor. That might be “the Milan signature”. A stellar cast with Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle – both alike in magnificence – made the ballet even more glamourous, exalting L'histoire de Manon to the Pantheon of star-crossed lovers.

Roberto Bolle (Des Grieux) and Svetlana Zakharova (Manon) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Roberto Bolle (Des Grieux) and Svetlana Zakharova (Manon)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Indeed La Scala’s Manon might lack the “kitchen sink realism” the choreographer intended for his creation in 1974. British culture was still obsessed with the struggle of the poor under the harsh 1970s and Kenneth MacMillan could barely make both ends meet as a child. Both factors are reflected in his interpretation of L’abbé Prévost's 1731 book, which condemned earthly pleasures in pre-revolutionary France. Manon seizes the day with a daily and growing appetite that is inappropriate for her time. Partly unsatisfied with her bohemian life with Des Grieux, she is hungry for the fancy life. Manon was meant to be a Milanese at some point and she adapted brightly according to La Scala traditions. Unfortunately, diamonds aren't a girl best friend, because you reap what you sow; Manon’s amoral-for-her-era yearnings wind her to a tragic end.

It takes many nuances to embody a gripping Manon, who’s an early feminist in some ways. An ethereal, long-limbed beauty, Svetlana Zakharova sounded exotic on paper as a loose woman offering herself out of greed in a corrupted demi-monde. Her perfectly shaped ballerina body proved a sensual asset. Her arched feet strikingly cut through the air in the voluptuous bedroom pas de deux. Her knee-to-ear extensions looked as naughty as her character should be and her long, snaking arms depicted lethal claws at Madame’s. Zakharova's alabaster complexion singled her out as a perfect 18th century model, although she is not the ideal Fragonard muse. Above all, she relied on the magnetic, even totalitarian, aura of a born queen. It's no wonder Manon was on her way to a convent: the girl is too beautiful and self-confident not to be thought of as a sinner. Her delicate rosebud face switched soon enough to the one of a thorny rose, enjoying her manipulative power over men.

Roberto Bolle (Des Grieux) and Svetlana Zakharova (Manon) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Roberto Bolle (Des Grieux) and Svetlana Zakharova (Manon)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Frivolous and unusually feline, Zakharova's Manon was in total control of her almighty self, grabbing one man and slipping from the other in a reversed Rose Adagio. Her flawless technique, along with her unrivalled and to-die-for lines perfectly suit MacMillan's aesthetics.

As a true poetic (but penniless) nobleman who got drawn away from good by Manon-the-Temptress, Roberto Bolle acted candid all the way in Des Grieux's shoes. The very first pas de deux with Manon was filled with rapture and awe, stirring chemistry erupting. A gorgeous velvet dancer with Greek god-like proportions, Bolle then stood like a Shakespearean actor declaiming his tragic verse “O Mistress mine where are you roaming?” while Manon was playing hard to get in a sweaty Paris salon.

The neoclassical choreography hasn’t gone stale. It is still beautifully daring with its virtuoso portés and disturbing, unusual sex scene. The alternation of choreography between expressive pas de deux and theatrical ensemble moments weaves a strong framework for the main plot. The two porcelain idols managed to get rid of the spirit of imaginative realism the ballet is traditionally tinged with: the final death scene was romantic and reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet (in an R-rated version). Zakharova, seraphically beautiful, despite her destitution, lost herself heart and soul to the audience as she stumbled astray in rags. Her interpretation of Manon is unique: she doesn’t revert to her trademark performances, rather venturing beyond her tsarina comfort zone. That, alone, was worth the whole evening.

Svetlana Zakharova (Manon) and Roberto Bolle (Des Grieux) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Svetlana Zakharova (Manon) and Roberto Bolle (Des Grieux)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Even though the technique wasn’t always clean for all the characters, the ensemble from La Scala was vividly witty, the performance sometimes verging on infectious burlesque. Greatly theatrical, Antonino Sutera (Lescaut) and Alessandra Vassallo (Lescaut's lover) kept a zingy rhythm going.

How relevant is Manon nowadays? Its guilt-inducing morals blaming the woman for being a born-temptress seem outdated and the hôtel particulier in which Prévost set his story has now probably become a fashionable nightclub for Parisian socialites. Yet, the ballet still conveys a fateful passion, amid the battle between heart, mind and body. And in this way, Manon resonates today as timely as ever and sorrow lingers on. Tension hung thickly in the air when the evening opened on a minute of silence for the Paris attacks. L'histoire de Manon proved cathartic in the aftermath of the tribute and the captivating beauty of the performance was a true blessing. One small candle may light a thousand…