On Friday night, American Ballet Theatre delivered a stunning performance: stunning balletically and theatrically. The musicians made a worthy contribution as well. It was a banner night of ballet in the Metropolitan Opera House.
The piece was Manon, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan (later Sir Kenneth) in 1974. Its choreography is unstaling. It is the kind of choreography that seems inevitable, once you see it—the kind about which you ask, “How can it be done any other way? Why would you want it done any other way?”
I think the same of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (1965).
The music for Manon is by Massenet, who composed his opera in 1884—Manon, I mean. Less than a decade later, in 1893, Puccini weighed in with his own version, which he called Manon Lescaut.
Massenet’s score is a juicy subject for ballet: think of the two tenor arias—including “Le rêve”—and the three soprano arias, one of which is a gavotte, for heaven’s sake: I mean, a dance already. Then there is the love duet—a barn-burner.
Do you know that MacMillan’s ballet uses not one note of Massenet’s opera? It uses music from thirteen of his other operas, along with piano pieces, orchestral numbers, etc.—all by Massenet.
Let me ask a question: Is it sheer coincidence that a Manon ballet uses music by a composer who wrote a Manon opera, a staple of the repertoire? It would appear so.
I think of Onegin, a ballet created by John Cranko in 1965 (same year as MacMillan’s Romeo). ABT performed it two years ago, and I wrote about it here. The score is all-Tchaikovsky—without a note from his most popular opera, Eugene Onegin.
Regardless, the Massenet selections are well chosen, I think. Some of the music is too la-di-da when the action is intense, but this is not pervasive. MacMillan’s ballet offers an assortment of music and dances: from divertissements—light as feathers—to the unspeakably heavy. (In a ballet, things are literally unspeakable.)
One of the Massenet pieces is his elegy, plucked from his music for Les Érinnyes, a play by Leconte de Lisle. Do you remember that Art Tatum jazzed up this melody? Hear him here. That was an interesting age (the first half of the twentieth century): when pieces like Massenet’s elegy were so well known in America, it was natural for jazzmen to improvise on them.
What happened? There have been many books on the subject, but I’m not sure . . .
On Friday night, Manon was well breathed, by dancers and musicians alike. Phrasing was sensible and natural (and often very moving). From beginning to end, the orchestra was gratifyingly competent. Conducting was David LaMarche, an ABT veteran. The strings, in general, were unified. Woodwinds and brass were accurate—with even the horn behaving. (This is almost too much to ask from such a recalcitrant instrument.) Solos, with an exception or two, were admirable.
A slew of dancers is required for Manon, but two principally: Manon and Des Grieux, of course, and on this night they were Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo. In the operas, Manon must undergo an evolution, which entails different types of singing (not to mention acting): she is an innocent slip of a girl; then a rather wily courtesan; then a wretch, heartbreaking. The dancer must undergo a similar evolution, and Miss Lane effected it superbly. You could not take your eyes off her. You’re not supposed to. (The men onstage—all of them—can’t take their eyes off her either.) At the end, she was a ragdoll, a plaything, the victim of raw evil.
I have said that you couldn’t take your eyes off her. Frankly, however, it was hard to look at the dénouement. It is exactly the same in the operas, particularly when they are well performed, with a good production.
Mr. Cornejo is a dancer both tidy and elegant. Gymnastic and aristocratic. Smooth and combustible. He and his Manon had—pardon the cliché—chemistry. They matched (and combusted). They provided, among other things, a vivid example of the craziness of initial love—a craziness that often has a terrible comedown, of course.
Blaine Hoven was Manon’s brother, long and compelling. Keith Roberts was the major villain of the piece, known as Monsieur G.M. With Sarah Lane, they performed one of the strangest pas de trois you’ll ever see. The brother is selling her off, so to speak. The buyer checks her out as one would a horse—and is overcome with lust. Mr. Roberts portrayed this with startling realism. You could see Manon buy it all (even as she was being bought). Honestly, this weird, perverse little pas de trois was mesmerizing.
We had, on Friday night, a powerful theatrical experience, in combination with a top-notch ballet experience. The name of the company is “American Ballet Theatre,” don’t forget—and these people really put the “T” in “ABT.”
Spare a thought for Abbé Prévost, who write his Manon story in the 1730s. I have not read it. But the works it spawned hit an emotional mark time after time. I kind of wish he could know it, and enjoy some royalties . . .