I don´t know what got into the heads of the programmers this season, for 2010 isn´t a bicentenary of the original Manon or any other special date, but fact is we are seeing no less than three different stage adaptations of Prévost´s famous novel. Juventus Lyrica is currently performing Puccini´s "Manon Lescaut"; the Colón has just presented two performances of MacMillan´s ballet "Manon"; and later in the season again the Colón will offer Massenet´s "Manon". A surfeit indeed.
Antoine-François Prévost lived between 1697 and 1763 and published his "Story of the Chevalier Des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut" in 1731 with a true "succès de scandale". It was then a good read and it remains so, for his narration gives an in-depth portrait of Franch society at the time of Louis XV with an agile and observant pen. It had some influence on Dumas Fils´ "The lady of the camellias". The girl is 15 in Prévost and in the ballet; Puccini´s numerous librettists put her age higher, 18, which makes the story less shocking. Still, either amoral (as Macmillan thinks) or immoral (as I view it), Manon is sensual and coquettish and easily attracted by jewels and the good life. So she veers between the carnal pleasure of her relationship with Des Grieux, who may be a chevalier but is also a pennyless student, and the ostentatious luxury offered to her by the Treasurer Geronte (appropriately named so in Puccini) or by a misterious Mr. G.M. in the ballet. And it´s her greed, as well as the machinations of her brother Lescaut, soldier and treacherous gambler, who eventually lead her and Des Grieux to tragedy.
Kenneth MacMillan´s marvelous choreography for Prokofiev´s "Romeo and Juliet" remains one of the very best of the twentieth century, and I cherish my memories of Bocca and Alessandra Ferri in it. For my taste, however, the choreographer´s "Manon" is in a different league, although I´ve read plenty of praise concerning this work. It was premiered at Covent Garden on March 1974 by the Royal Ballet. Here Bocca and Ferri presented it in 2006 at the Ópera, on the year of his final performances, and notwithstanding the magic of these dancers I felt disappointed. Of course there are some splendid moments, especially in the various pas de deux and in a difficult solo by "Mistress" (Lescaut´s, that is). But there´s also plenty of padding and the work overstays its welcome, especially in the First Scene of the Second Act, a colorless brothel-gambling house. There are moments of poetry, but also tasteless ones as the scene between the Jailer and Manon. In all, the ballet seems too pat and undramatic. The music has part of the blame; it is all Massenet from different operas (but not "Manon"!) and other scores, such as the famous "Élégie" (surely the best music and choreography), but Leighton Lucas has done an undistinguished job of compilation and orchestration, and much of it is boring and too light.
Even if I don´t enthuse about this ballet, it is surely to be deplored that because of labor troubles (meetings during rehearsals) the public was given only two of the six planned performances. Certainly a very bad start that shows an uncomfortable truth: the Colón was reinaugurated but it is seething with internal problems. The main reason: the City Government has been so silly that it didn´t pay in time the extra fees for the May 24 reinauguration show (it was a Monday, a non-working day for the Colón, and it must be paid double). And thus the audiences for the ballet were shortchanged but also the artists. It doesn´t help either that the Colón has just lost an excellent ballet teacher, Karemia Moreno, due to differences with Lidia Segni, the Ballet´s Directress.
The ballet was revived here by Karl Burnett; the general lines of MacMillan´s steps were quite recognizable, but I can´t vouchsafe on detail if there are any changes. The production came from Santiago de Chile´s Teatro Municipal, which is much smaller than the Colón, so the adaptation wasn´t easy and apart from proportions I felt that some painted parts were rather weak in execution, but the general picture by Peter Farmer was agreeable, respecting the eighteenth-century ambience. Costumes are uncredited but I suppose they all come from Santiago; they were of varied quality.
The protagonists chosen by Burnett are quite young and had here their first great roles. The parts are long and difficult and both Nadia Muzyca and Federico Fernández have promising qualities; the acting ability of Muzyca seemed higher than her partenaire´s and she rose to the drama of the last act with great flexibility. Both Silvina Perillo and Alejandro Parente were in full form and Sergio Yannelli was a convincing Monsieur G.M. The Corps de Ballet had no less than 19 reinforcements (coming, I´m told, from Bocca´s school where Segni teaches) which shows the parlous condition of the Colón´s Ballet, where many can´t dance anymore due to age and absurd pensioning conditions. This ballet has many big ensembles and I felt they were reasonably well danced. Chilean conductor José Luis Domínguez, who had done the same job for Bocca and for Santiago, drew a fluent performance from the Colón resident orchestra.
I will leave consideration of Puccini´s "Manon Lescaut" for next week, for I thought it worthwhile to concentrate on the Colón Ballet.
For Buenos Aires Herald