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'Manon' - Royal Opera House

This week, the Royal Ballet once again engages its audience with a story of self-deceiving masculine desire and sexual exploitation. Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon portrays the rise of a young girl through her promiscuity before her inevitable fall from grace. The opera also depicts the allure of the gilded upper classes, and the abuse that penniless young women are willing to accept just to get a taste of life in such a class.

Manon. Sarah Lamb as Manon and Vadim Muntagirov as Des Grieux. ©ROH, Alice Pennefather, 2014.

MacMillan’s masterpiece portrays a brutal society in which a young girl must engage in sexual commodification or otherwise surrender to famine and starvation. With each scene, the juxtaposition of rags and destitution with finery and wealth are subtly and brilliantly portrayed by Nicholas Georgiadis. The filthy backdrops engage with the bleak truths of the public spaces found in the eighteenth century.

Adapted from the socially critical novel Manon Lescaut (1731) written by Abbé Prévost, Manon does not focus solely on sex as a method in which to beat poverty, but contrasts erotic scenes of commodification with those of intimacy, trust and love. The duets between Manon and Des Grieux (Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov, respectively) contrast images of gaud and greed with youth and innocence. This romantic affair is centred on a stage that is cleanly and brightly lit, complementing the true nature of the pair’s chemistry. The pair’s embraces embody a pure, unadulterated love.

Des Grieux and Manon’s clean, sinless depiction of young romance haunts the following acts, as a stage that was once white is now infected by abuse and exploitation. Previous scenes of adoration are quickly abandoned as Sarah Lamb perfectly illustrates Manon’s multifaceted nature, displaying the character’s weakness for dazzling wealth and captivating jewels in her role as a prostitute. Overrun with alcoholism, perversion and injustice, Madame’s Hotel becomes a nucleus of masculine exhortation and female desperation, where sex becomes the currency for survival.

Manon, once an innocent heroine, is degraded to the status of desperate destitute clawing for the attention of men. Her situation becomes all the more horrific as her prostitution leads to her imprisonment, and yet again, her sexual exploitation. Manon has been cast far away from her childish notions of jewels and luxury. These fantasies find a rude awakening at the hands of her gaoler—a rapist.

Manon. Sarah Lamb as Manon. ©ROH, Alice Pennefather, 2014.

In a rare flash of justice, Des Grieux murders the gaoler and breaks Manon free. However, the following pas de deux between the lovers is forsaken, as it is too late to alter Manon’s fate. In this final scene, Sarah Lamb depicts a girl exhausted and ruined by a corrupted masculine world. She is a woman struggling to breathe, let alone run from the society that has wrecked her. Massenet’s heartbreaking score perfectly orchestrates Manon’s death and leaves the audience as heartbroken as Des Grieux.

The Royal Ballet has once again demonstrated its talent for storytelling, immaculate form and character chemistry. It is sure to be another spectacular season in their books.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor

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