The Australian Ballet’s beautiful production of Manon is a tragic journey from innocence to baleful experience from the Parisian high life to penal servitude in the swamplands of Louisiana.
The action starts in the courtyard of an inn near Paris in the 18th century. The courtyard at the inn is a lively place indeed, “where the underworld can meet the elite”, as was said in 42nd Street. A young student des Grieux (Kevin Jackson), the wealthy Monsieur GM (danced powerfully by Steven Heathcote) are enjoying the scene with Lescaut (Rudi Hawkes) who is to meet his sister, Manon (danced brilliantly by Amber Scott) on her way to enter a convent. Then things start to go awry. This is a story of reverse alchemy – turning that which is golden into that which is base.
Lescaut turns out to be a less than ideal brother; indeed a pimp. He initially seeks to come to an arrangement with an old gentleman (Frank Leo) from the coach much taken by Manon; but then Lescaut sniffs out a better deal with the rich Monsieur GM. It is great to see Steven Heathcote reprising his acclaimed performance in the role of Monsieur GM. He brings a menacing authority to the role and expresses through dance just how much power corrupts.
In the meantime Manon has struck up a relationship with the young student, des Grieux (Kevin Jackson) and they have departed the scene.
The next scene rises not on a young innocent girl on her way to the convent but with Manon in the bedroom in des Grieux’s lodgings in Paris with Manon declaring her love for him. As Des Grieux goes to post a letter to his father, Manon’s brother, Lescaut arrives with Monsieur GM. Manon yields to GM’s advances and, when Des Grieux returns, Lescaut persuades him that there will be great wealth for all of them if he, Des Grieux, will sanction the liaison between Manon and GM.
Wordsworth wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” sometimes necessary to appreciate poetry. The breathtaking twists in this plot certainly require that; but also perhaps illustrate vividly the limited options facing women in an authoritarian society dominated by the aristocracy.
Amber Scott’s enchanting performance of Manon somehow enables us to believe in the fantastic twist and turn of events. Despite living the high life with Monsieur GM, she still finds herself torn with her love for Des Grieux, whom she encounters at a large party.
The sumptuous music of Jules Massenet dramatically expresses the clash of classes and gender. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra with concertmaster, Warwick Adeney, play with true Gallic passion under the direction of chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon.
Monsieur GM does not take kindly to Manon’s dalliance with her former boyfriend. He arranges for the police to have her arrested as a prostitute and sent to the French penal colony in America. Des Grieux follows her there by pretending to be her husband. Unsurprisingly, the gaoler (John-Paul Idaszak) now turns his interest towards Manon, offering rewards in the hope she will desert des Grieux and live with him. Des Grieux however breaks in and kills the gaoler.
Manon and des Grieux escape into the swamp of Louisiana. All Manon’s former ambitions of wealth and splendour have been renounced but she does have left her love for des Grieux immersed in the swamplands. She collapses and dies in his arms.
The Australian Ballet’s performance of this deeply moving ballet in the former penal colony of Moreton Bay has a special poignancy in the lead-up to International Women’s Day. It is as rich as the music of Jules Massenet, as relevant to the former British penal colonies in Australia as to the French penal colonies in America. It speaks with contemporary relevance to the limited options still facing some women contending in a world of power still largely dominated by men.
It is an exquisitely sad, strikingly beautiful, artistic expression of the human condition.
Artistic director: David McAllister AM
Choreographer: Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Music by Jules Massenet
Arranged and orchestrated by Martin Yates
Costume and set design: Peter Farmer
Original lighting design: William Akers reproduced by Francis Croese
Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes with two intervals of 20 and 15 minutes.