Friday, 10 October 2014

Lamb & Muntagirov in MacMillan's Manon at the Royal Opera House

The view from Amphitheatre C:80, seated
It seems that since my move to London one year ago, the story of Manon Lescaut has imprinted itself firmly upon my being. Massenet's opera was the first production I saw at Covent Garden, Puccini's the closing chapter of my first season and now, in this new season, the Royal Ballet's extended run of Manon has been eating up my schedule considerably. Add onto that the recent purchase of the original novel, you have something akin to overexposure.

Thus, over the past few performances (with Nunez/Bonelli & Osipova/Acosta) I fancied myself immune to the harrowing effects of the sorrowful story. I thought back to the strength of feelings I had experienced upon my first encounter with the story, and felt rather regretful.

Yet, on this evening, a beautifully poignant and earnest performance by Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov moved me, as if it was my first time encountering this tale of great woe and passion.

I have already spoken at length about the long-awaited role debut of Natalia Osipova a few days ago, in which I gave high praise to her believable, self-aware and gregarious portrayal of the complex role. Yet, something lacked that evening, outside of her superlative skill. This was the general consensus; as aptly put by Judith Mackrell's Guardian review: "we feel it's life she can't bear to leave, not des Grieux." The more I reflected upon this, the more I felt disappointed that the heart of both production and story had been considerably diminished; for what is Manon Lescaut without the helpless and impassioned ardor that exists between the two lovers?

Part of this problem stems from the difficulty of the role of des Grieux. A technically demanding part, from the subtlety to his Act 1 solo to the multitude of lifts, it is also hampered by having none of Manon's obvious vulnerabilities in which the dancer may build character. Thus, it has been unfortunate but understandable that most of its canvassers this season have faltered in the emotional aspect of their portrayal.
Not so for Muntagirov. Aesthetically, he is different; he exudes natural youthfulness (being only twenty-four), with his pale and pinched face and almost coltish legs. Yet, he commands the stage wholesomely and with easy grace. He is at perhaps the perfect age and maturity for this role. His des Grieux has a sweetly cloying, aching gentility. Somehow, in his Act 1 solo, he seemed to have half a second more time than the others, time to elongate his incredibly long limbs in a way that exuded nobility - while the spritely candour of his steps betrayed the tremulous first dawn of romance. There is a Russian lilt to his hands still (he himself says he is a product of both the English and Russian schools) and he exudes a lyricism that is both refreshing and captivating. It was one of those moments where the whole house seemed to sigh a little whenever that graceful line appeared.

He and Lamb, though an unexpected partnership, make a devastatingly earnest couple. Both exude youth and awe - their love in the first pas de deux is uncomplicated and ardent, as if neither can scarcely believe the new sensations awash within them. The lifts were performed as if she weighed nothing at all; so fluid and languidly they moved across the stage, entranced by their own spell. Even more delicious was their bedroom pas de deux - more than anything else, they radiated joy and candid sensuality. They moved entirely as one, with Muntagirov's sensitive partnering complimenting Lamb's sweetness.

With such a languidly beautiful Act 1, perfect in its incredulity and trance-like dreaminess, there were fears amongst the audience that such a portrayal could not be sustained, and the momentum would burn out before the final act. Thankfully, it was not to be thus, most predominantly thanks to Vadim Muntagirov. Never before have I seen des Grieux so convincing as the spurned lover. When he entreats Manon to return to him at the party, he is frantic and messy in his pleas. His solo passage when she retreats from him has a faintly wild edge, an outpouring of youthful anguish and frustration. In their pas de deux in his lodgings, his anger as he looks at her bracelet with remorseful eyes is virile. Muntagirov was, in every respect, the heart of this Manon production. Much like des Grieux's resolve in following Manon "to the ends of the earth", Muntagirov would not be swayed. His immersion (in what has, in this run, been an one-dimensional character) was total - and ultimately, heartbreaking. Even in the famous final pas de deux, he shone another light. Like all other interpreters before him, he is willing Manon to live; but the tenderness shines through - his arms cradle her even more gently and every step of his is laced not with desperation but true sorrow.

Lamb's Manon is a good girl; perhaps too good, some might argue. It is hard to reconcile the warmth flowing from the gentle arms in the Act 1 to the brazen courtesan she became, and even less so the the violated woman of the final Act. It is difficult to imagine that such a prudent Manon would ever take to the gambling table, let alone succumb to material trappings. But the gentleness of Lamb's Manon is also significant and it goes some way to explain the gulf in emotional connection between tonight's performance and its predecessors. It held us understand why she invokes such sincerity and passion from des Grieux. She has to be more than a fickle, vain creature - for a des Grieux to have adored her to the extent that Muntagirov's did, he must have responded to something more than her sensuality. In this respect, we, the audience, fell deeply for their tragedy.

Here is where the true triumph of the night lay. Where Muntagirov and Lamb are at their most magical is in the true depth of feeling between them. They have reminded us what we never should have forgot - that Manon, in any incarnation, is first and foremost above love, love that blooms and survives even under the most sordid of conditions. Lamb and Muntagirov embraced this in its entirety, and thus they soared soared. No lift seemed to trouble them, no manoeuvre broke the flow of movement between two bodies in complete understanding. At the ending, where Muntagirov's des Grieux looks down upon his beloved's dead body, his shoulders seemed to heave with not the exaggerated torment we have come to expect, but a true outpouring of anguish.

Lamb & Muntagirov receiving their rapturous applause
This ballet showcases, like no other, what a fine body of actors the corps de ballet are. Many of the scenes are crammed full of bodies and like a great, intricate tapestry, there is always something new to discover. Each prostitute under the Madame's charge has their own individual flair and charms; even the beggars at the dockside quarrel heatedly, regardless of the solos being performed in their midst. This kind of headily immersive acting was embodied by Gary Avis and Thomas Whitehead in their unsavoury roles as Monsieur GM and the Gaoler respectively, which they seemed to dispatch with real relish.

Yuhui Choe, a perennial crowd favourite, (and bizarrely, not yet a principal dancer) was superb once more as Lescaut's mistress, a role in which she only recently made her debut. She gave the role appropriate complexity and importantly, beneath all the flirtations and boisterous behaviour of the character, she doesn't forget to remain beautiful, with excellent willowy arms that I could watch forever. She and Zucchetti seemed to have formed a rather delightful understanding, both radiating a natural lyricism that they aren't afraid to manipulate in search of wanton pleasure.

But in this ballet that is only as strong as its central pairing, all eyes must go to the heartfelt des Grieux and his accommodating Manon.

Lamb & Muntagirov

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