Manon was MacMillan’s second three-act ballet as artistic director of the Royal Ballet. Anastasia, three years before, had met with such trenchant criticism that MacMillan opted for a more familiar operatic story and structure. He based his scenario on the 1731 novel by the Abbé Prévost, L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. The story had been used for operas by Massenet and Puccini, and adapted for films MacMillan had enjoyed.
He was advised to steer clear of Puccini’s score for Manon Lescaut (already in the Royal Opera repertoire) and go for lesser-known music by Massenet. Leighton Lucas, a former dancer with the Ballets Russes who had become a conductor for ballet and a composer of film scores, was asked to compile and orchestrate a selection of Massenet’s music. Extracts come from overtures, opera ballets and incidental music for plays as well as from once obscure operas and oratorios. Hilda Gaunt, the company pianist, assisted MacMillan when he began to choreograph by suggesting, and playing, suitable music for the various pas de deux – always his starting point.
He had chosen Antoinette Sibley as Manon and Anthony Dowell as Des Grieux, giving them both a copy of Prévost’s novel to read in preparation for their roles. He had completed three of their key pas de deux when Sibley was injured, out of action for several months. MacMillan finished the ballet with Jennifer Penney as Manon. Sibley had recovered in time for the first night. Penney danced the role in the 1982 Royal Ballet video, with Dowell as Des Grieux and David Wall as Lescaut.
MacMillan was quoted as saying that he found his clue to Manon’s behaviour in her background of poverty: ‘Manon is not so much afraid of being poor as ashamed of being poor. Poverty in that period was the equivalent of long, slow death’. Nicholas Georgiadis’s designs reflect the precarious division between opulence and degradation in pre-Revolutionary France. (The ballet is set later in the 18th century than Prévost’s novel.) Tiers of rags drape the background in the first two acts, half-hidden behind the architectural sets. Demi-monde characters flaunt their finery while beggars, thieves and prostitutes ply their trades.
Georgiadis researched the period in depth, drawing on images from paintings and etchings for his costumes and settings: the sinister ratcatcher and the girl dressed as a pretty boy, for example, come from18th century pictures. Later designers for other companies’ productions have been less specific about the ballet’s social context.
In Act I, Manon is on her way to enter a convent when her stage-coach stops at an inn. Her brother, Lescaut, is there on an outing with a louche group of acquaintances from Paris. He prepares to sell his teenage sister to the highest bidder, Monsieur G.M, but she runs off with a young student, Des Grieux, who has charmed her with his ardour.
Their idyllic affair in Des Grieux’s lodging is running out of money when Lescaut arrives with Monsieur G.M in tow. G.M. offers Manon luxuries she cannot resist. She abandons Des Grieux to become a kept woman.
At the start of Act II, she makes an entrance on the arm of G.M at a party in Madame X’s hotel particulier, where every woman is for sale. Des Grieux is reluctantly present, brought by drunken Lescaut. Although Manon delights in being the centre of attention, she is torn between her desire for material rewards and her first love for Des Grieux. She conspires in a scheme for Des Grieux to fleece G.M in a game of cards, but his inept cheating is soon exposed. The lovers make their escape during the brawl that follows.
They are discovered in Des Grieux’s lodgings by Monsieur G.M and the militia, who have arrested Lescaut. Lescaut is shot and killed and Manon is detained, to be deported as a prostitute.
Act III opens with a dockside scene in the port of New Orleans. The latest batch of bedraggled deportees arrives, with Manon among them. Des Grieux has accompanied her to the penal colony to share her exile. The gaoler of the colony forces himself on Manon; Des Grieux breaks in and stabs him to death.
In the final scene, the lovers have fled into the swamps of Louisiana. Manon, delirious, hallucinates episodes from her past before collapsing and dying in the arms of Des Grieux.
Although Manon was well-received by the public, critics had reservations about the ballet’s structure and the characters’ motives. Some were taken aback by the amoral nature of the heroine, more unusual in a ballet than in an opera. ‘Basically, Manon is a slut and Des Grieux is a fool and they move in the most unsavoury company . . . the most effective character, in fact, becomes Lescaut himself’, wrote Mary Clarke in The Guardian. ‘An appalling waste of lovely Antoinette Sibley, who is reduced to a nasty little diamond digger’, opined Jane King in the Morning Star. While most critics appreciated the quality of the choreography, especially for the three main roles, they found the ballet too long. (Cuts were made after the first season at the start of the third act, speeding up the action.) In an extensive review in The Financial Times, Andrew Porter, who disliked the Massenet score, praised the distinction of the choreography, dancing and designs, predicting that Manon would ‘certainly reward repeated observation and generations of performers’.
It has. Manon herself has altered as different dancers have taken on the role. Antoinette Sibley saw her as a girl ‘who allowed it all to happen to her . . .I don’t think she’s a schemer - she only makes decisions when she has to’. Lynn Seymour made her more ruthless: she and her brother are ‘cut from the same cloth, both bandits, using all they have to achieve what they want . . . she broke the rules and the punishment crushed her’. Natalia Makarova understood her as an instinctive creature who lives for the moment, ‘extracting from it all the excitement she can. At the same time she fully knows that the day will come when she must pay the price…. for the pleasure of living fully’. Sylvie Guillem’s guileful Manon used her sexual allure to survive in a male-dominated world. Des Grieux’s misfortune was to have strayed into her path just as she was discovering her power. Where other Manons die as desperate victims, limp as rags, Guillem fought on, defying death itself.
The three leading roles continue to attract new interpreters as the ballet is performed by companies around the world. Male dancers often alternate the roles of Des Grieux and Lescaut, as Dowell and Wall used to do. When the Paris Opera Ballet took Manon into its repertoire in 1991, a legal wrangle resulted in MacMillan’s ballet being re-titled L’Histoire de Manon. The heir to Massenet’s estate had objected to possible confusion between the opera and the ballet. Henceforth, the ballet has been known in Europe (with the exception of the United Kingdom) as L’Histoire de Manon and in the rest of the world simply as Manon.