Sunday, 26 October 2014

A Spellbinding 'Manon' with Osipova and Acosta

I steadfastly believe that the reason I persevere with the performing arts, why I rush through hours of coursework and reading just so I can head down to Covent Garden or the Southbank or the Barbican at all hours of the evening, is my faith in the magic that accompanies moments of sheer nirvana. 'Magic' is surely the only true word to describe the unassailable sensation that accompanies such a moment - where all senses are overcome in a tidal wave. And magic is what we got today, in the ecstatic dying embrace of Manon and her des Grieux.

I was in attendance, three weeks ago, for Osipova's role rebut as a magnetically flawed girl-woman. There, her genius soared gaily, but its flight was marred by some incongruently heavy factors - her lack of chemistry with Acosta being the main detractor. I feel it would be a gross disservice to both wonderful artistes if that was the last written evidence of my opinion against them. For this second final performance was completely and utterly transfigured.

If one saw Osipova and Acosta tonight, they would think it unbelievable that the same two had come under severe criticisms of unattachment mere weeks before. She retained all the wondrous qualities of her stupendous characterisation from the first evening - from loveliness personified, to the sensuous, to the macabre, all interlinked into one fiercely burning spark. But this time, her head was turned to her des Grieux and her narcism offset by longing. Whereas before, this life-loving Manon plunged off the precipice to embrace hedonism, tonight's incarnation brought us a Manon genuinely torn and worn ragged by love and greed, redeemed by the unbreakable thread that holds her to des Grieux.

From the very first of the three hugely impressive pas des deux, everything was tighter, fast and with heightened tension. It had the sensation of blossoming, a hushed adoration that was beguiling in its believability. They canvassed the stage as if buoyed by nothing but the purest exhilaration, luxuriating in stolen moments - an lingering glance here, a tremulous touch there - so much so that the audience almost felt invasive. Manon's growth from young girl to wanton courtesan no longer feels like an internal transformation to which des Grieux is nothing but an accessory. Now, we believe in the steadfastness of their love, which survives the harshest of conditions. Importantly however, Osipova did not forsake intensity for delicacy. Her Manon still retains its gritty, overly-vivacious edge that makes her so comprehensively believable. Their love is strong, not pure - even the first pas de deux is tinged with hints of sexual power, which later blooms and drives the bedroom pas de deux with an urgency unparalleled. Osipova, who once could be accused to dancing to the maxim 'bigger is better', has evolved. Everything she does remains impressive in theatricality and electric in intensity - but now, the big and wonderful in accompanied by heart. And tonight, she gave hers to des Grieux completely. There were points in the second pas des deux where she seemed giddy, reckless and overcome with sheer bliss.

Indeed, Acosta made perhaps the biggest transformation. He is, and always has been, a fantastically powerful dancer and able actor, although his powers have been said to wane with age. Tonight was something of a renaissance. His opening solo adagio was softer and crafted with a languid gentility conspicuously absent from the first night. Moreover, his partnership with Osipova was perfect in its synchronisation. There was never an unreciprocated touch, nor a glance that did not elicit a reaction, be it joy, lust or, as the ballet wore on, uneasiness and despair. Though he has not the puppyish physique that makes the role of des Grieux come as naturally as it does to younger dancers, he turns his strength to his advantage to find a more authoritative Chevalier that suits Osipova's decadent Manon. In the Act II, when he is distraught by Manon's fickleness, his steps were punctuated not with virile frustration, and his anger towards her when she refuses to discard of the bracelet and her weakness for wealth is formidable. Together, Acosta and Osipova create a more virile and fervent pairing, both adopting a no-holds-barred approach. The end result assaults the senses mercilessly - they attack their roles with rabid rapaciousness, riding the highs of Massenet's soaring score without being afraid of the depths of the falls. Where Lamb and Muntagirov were gentle and Nunez and Bonelli were tender, Osipova and Muntagirov were reckless and in this gruesome tale, recklessness is infinitely more rewarding.

The depths they reached were encompassed entirely in the final Act, where our hapless pair seemed weighed down with exhaustion (perhaps not acted, given their complete immersion in the acts prior). She, already trembling in death's grasp, could hardly turn her head to face him - yet, her entire body gravitated towards him. When they step onto the dock, to be harassed by Avis' fascinatingly ghoulish gaoler, they lean on each other - she for strength, and he for sanity. When they are forcibly separated by Avis, we see her vulnerable and preyed upon, so graphically it is upsetting (although, once again, Avis is a real gem). Yet, even when she is thus violated and this helpless Manon grasps blindly for the jewels, it is a more wrenching moment than ever before - it is this greed and consumption that has torn her so convincingly apart.

The final pas de deux was a moment of suspended of wonder. I have spoken admiringly before of Osipova's courage in embracing the gruesome and angular sides of death. Here, it was augmented by true regret. We feel that she wants desperately to live and that she is clinging onto des Grieux in fear - when she runs to him for the devilish throws, there is no sense of bracing herself for the technical demand. Instead, she seems to open her body and completely launch herself into his arms without reserve, trusting and willing him to carry her on. And every move of his is tormented - he is rough, he grasps her fiercely, and he seems to shake with convulsive sorrow. At the close, when he throws her one final time and she plunges straight into his arms, all fight seems to leave both bodies. It is an emotionally destructive performance; they scale heights far too immense to leave room for anything but utter devastation. The end result is quite magnificent.

The entire cast, thankfully, seemed to rise to the occasion with relish. Special mention must go to Thiago Soares, who seemed to improve on his already excellent Lescaut. He performs the part with such security now, and he has a naturally roguish charm which makes the role doubly compelling. Every character in Manon has a flaw - his, most prominently, is cowardice and when the dashing mien peels away to reveal the scrambling, frightened and pitifully pleading Lescaut at the end, it is a disarming contrast. Of all the Lescauts of this run, Soares is the only one that truly commands the role with the swagger and ease that brings it life. Moreover, I was once again struck by the complexity and scale of the Manon production, which truly showcases what able actors the Royal Ballet are. Each harlot has their own personality, each gentleman customer at the brothel has his own taste. This depth of personality makes the entire production echo with poignancy, particularly at the end when, while Manon is lying in delirium in the wasteland, these phantoms of an condemning past flit behind her - telling of her short life.

All in all, it was the type of evening that simply resonates hours and hours after the curtain has dropped. The Royal Opera House's extended Manon run is quickly coming to an end. With only one couple left (the nuanced Zenaida Yanowsky and international hunk Roberto Bolle), I defy them to produce anything close to the magic of this night.

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