An explosive cocktail of love and greed
The Paris Opera Ballet closes the season with MacMillan’s 1974 classic. A story with three central figures – a reckless coquette who becomes a victim, a student who sacrifices everything for her, and her manipulative brother who succumbs to his own avidity. Ludmila Pagliero and Sae Eun Park, Marc Moreau and Paul Marque, Francesco Mura and Thomas Docquir bring to live these three intricate characters on the stage of the Palais Garnier. ALESSANDRO BIZZOTTO reports.
In a way, the opening scene of Manon tells it all. Lescaut, Manon’s brother, sitting on the floor in half darkness, his hat and cloak on, contemplating the demi-monde he needs to prey upon for better living. Then, that world starts to come alive in the courtyard of an inn, and its characters appear as in a big painted tapestry. A wealthy nobleman, Monsieur G. M. The young student Des Grieux. Lescaut’s mistress, elegantly attired.
All the main figures involved in Manon’s story are already there, with Lescaut arrogantly pulling their strings. When his sister Manon arrives while on her way to enter a convent, in fact, it is almost obvious Lescaut has a plan for her as well. He is the real engine behind the story somehow. No wonder he’s always been my favourite male character. I really like the fact that in some theatres (such as the Royal Opera House) the three interpreters of Manon, Des Grieux and Lescaut take a final curtain call together – it makes it clear that the story has three leading characters.
MacMillan’s ballet, based on the novel by Antoine François Prévost known as Abbé Prévost, takes place during the regency of Philippe d’Orléans, who was regent for Louis XV until 1723, considered one of the most depraved periods in French history. A quite squalid face of Paris is shown to Manon and to us – beggars ready to pickpocket, prostitutes waiting to be deported, unsavoury hawkers. Manon loves life and its pleasures, and immediately understands that the border between wealth and poverty can be crossed too easily. Life in the France of the Age of Enlightenment, after all, makes fortunes and destroys them dreadfully swiftly.
Lescaut knows too well love is on sale too. He considers the fact that his sister falls in love with Des Grieux as a detail – Manon is convinced by her brother to leave the young student, after running away with him, to become rich G. M.’s lover. Love and greed for money will prove to be a deadly cocktail.
On the stage of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, Sae Eun Park and Paul Marque, as Manon and Des Grieux, look young, innocent and very much in love. Their romance is pure, Marque looks almost intimidated by the young woman everyone desires. During their first pas de deux at the inn, they smile almost sheepishly as two classmates who find themselves falling in love with each other.
But when she wears a luxurious overcoat and G. M. places a diamond necklace around her throat, Park’s Manon has almost a physical reaction – it is evident she won’t resist the appeal of money.
Thomas Docquir is Lescaut. His approach is quite academic – he accurately dances Lescaut’s stunning Act One variation; he would just need something more of the fierce, brutal bite of the character. Docquir seems much more at his ease with the comedic timing of Act Two, when he effectively gives life to a dashing scoundrel, though vaguely vampiresque.
As his mistress, Camille Bon is beautiful. An elegant dancer who brings on stage also a smooth and subtle sense of humour. Her Act One variation is perfectly executed.
In Act Two, Park’s charm is almost icy, while Marque allows his Des Grieux to be irresolute, embarrassed, at times feeling misplaced at that party even though pleasantly cowed by Camille Bon’s provocative looks.
Park and Marque’s argument at the end of Act Two is still more similar to a young lovers’ quarrel than to the one between two people marked by betrayal and pain. Yet their attitude, in choosing that kind of almost childish approach to love, proves its effectiveness.
The following night Ludmila Pagliero is Manon. When she enters the stage for the first time, at the inn, she is shimmering, and she burst with soft vitality. Pagliero is almost bothered by G.M.’s first hitting on her – her Manon is well aware to be beautiful and she plays with it. In her first pas de deux with Marc Moreau’s Des Grieux, Pagliero grows in involvement until she surrenders to love.
In his Act One variation, Moreau’s Des Grieux is way more self-assured than Marque’s – Moreau smiles sure of himself where Marque masterfully quivers with the emotion and the uncertainty that is inherent in a first declaration of love. Moreau is more of an experienced young man who knows how to talk about love, while Marque is a nearly shy student who falls head over heels. In fact, in the courtyard, Marque almost finds himself bumping into Park’s Manon as he doesn’t know what else to do in seeing her moving back; instead Moreau stops and turns his back on Pagliero entirely on purpose.
Pagliero and Moreau’s bedroom pas de deux in Act One is strikingly playful and passionate. She impetuously throws herself into his arms. The stage creaks with sensual tension.
Slapping his mistress is almost a game for Francesco Mura’s Lescaut. He is a commanding presence – his first variation is explosive, he is extremely confident in landing and fearless in turning.
In the pas de trois, Pagliero and Mura take complicit looks – Grégory Dominiak’s severe and frowning Monsieur G.M. almost ends up becoming their victim. Decked in jewels and fur, Pagliero becomes more similar to a mantis aware of her power of seduction – when she and Mura turn towards G.M. just before the beginning of the pas de trois, their impeccable timing makes it perceptible that the older, rich nobleman will become their golden goose. Pagliero hypnotically stares at him while Mura is like the puppet master – she knows what to do and, when she provokes Dominiak languidly sitting on the bed and he almost takes things too far, she is just slightly upset whilst Mura seems to remind G.M., “Money first”.
In Act Two, Mura’s Lescaut is trying to conceal his drunkenness – there is little room for comedy. After entering, filled with haughtiness, Pagliero mocks him for being drunk: she knows him well.
Silvia Saint-Martin is a charming and snobbish Lescaut’s mistress. She is never vulgar – technique-wise she may not be steadily in shape tonight, but she dances with a captivating, provocative spirit that makes her mistress glamorous and beguiling, imperceptibly less blissfully naïve than Camille Bon.
Pagliero’s sumptuous, glorious variation in Act Two is a highlight – her arms are seductive, her turns silky and immaculate. You can’t take your eyes off her.
Having a brother myself, I have always found Lescaut’s death, at the end of Act Two, the tragic zenith of Manon. She sees her brother killed before her eyes and she realizes her world is crumbling.
Park is frozen by anguish on Docquir’s convulsed body. Pagliero screams desperately in seeing Mura being deadly shot.
When, halfway through Act Three, Manon is raped by the gaoler of the penal colony in New Orleans, Park looks impressively emptied, her eyes emotionless, while Pagliero is annihilated by humiliation.
The pain of guilt and remorse is evident in Park and Marque’s final pas de deux, as they cry and despair. Pagliero and Moreau rather make the inevitability of tragedy visible – to a certain extent, did Manon have it coming? Yet Pagliero never judges her character. She is exhausted, dying from hardship and starvation: there is not even time to repent, nor to look backwards and hope that things had gone differently.