Sunday, 26 October 2014

A Spellbinding 'Manon' with Osipova and Acosta

I steadfastly believe that the reason I persevere with the performing arts, why I rush through hours of coursework and reading just so I can head down to Covent Garden or the Southbank or the Barbican at all hours of the evening, is my faith in the magic that accompanies moments of sheer nirvana. 'Magic' is surely the only true word to describe the unassailable sensation that accompanies such a moment - where all senses are overcome in a tidal wave. And magic is what we got today, in the ecstatic dying embrace of Manon and her des Grieux.

I was in attendance, three weeks ago, for Osipova's role rebut as a magnetically flawed girl-woman. There, her genius soared gaily, but its flight was marred by some incongruently heavy factors - her lack of chemistry with Acosta being the main detractor. I feel it would be a gross disservice to both wonderful artistes if that was the last written evidence of my opinion against them. For this second final performance was completely and utterly transfigured.

If one saw Osipova and Acosta tonight, they would think it unbelievable that the same two had come under severe criticisms of unattachment mere weeks before. She retained all the wondrous qualities of her stupendous characterisation from the first evening - from loveliness personified, to the sensuous, to the macabre, all interlinked into one fiercely burning spark. But this time, her head was turned to her des Grieux and her narcism offset by longing. Whereas before, this life-loving Manon plunged off the precipice to embrace hedonism, tonight's incarnation brought us a Manon genuinely torn and worn ragged by love and greed, redeemed by the unbreakable thread that holds her to des Grieux.

From the very first of the three hugely impressive pas des deux, everything was tighter, fast and with heightened tension. It had the sensation of blossoming, a hushed adoration that was beguiling in its believability. They canvassed the stage as if buoyed by nothing but the purest exhilaration, luxuriating in stolen moments - an lingering glance here, a tremulous touch there - so much so that the audience almost felt invasive. Manon's growth from young girl to wanton courtesan no longer feels like an internal transformation to which des Grieux is nothing but an accessory. Now, we believe in the steadfastness of their love, which survives the harshest of conditions. Importantly however, Osipova did not forsake intensity for delicacy. Her Manon still retains its gritty, overly-vivacious edge that makes her so comprehensively believable. Their love is strong, not pure - even the first pas de deux is tinged with hints of sexual power, which later blooms and drives the bedroom pas de deux with an urgency unparalleled. Osipova, who once could be accused to dancing to the maxim 'bigger is better', has evolved. Everything she does remains impressive in theatricality and electric in intensity - but now, the big and wonderful in accompanied by heart. And tonight, she gave hers to des Grieux completely. There were points in the second pas des deux where she seemed giddy, reckless and overcome with sheer bliss.

Indeed, Acosta made perhaps the biggest transformation. He is, and always has been, a fantastically powerful dancer and able actor, although his powers have been said to wane with age. Tonight was something of a renaissance. His opening solo adagio was softer and crafted with a languid gentility conspicuously absent from the first night. Moreover, his partnership with Osipova was perfect in its synchronisation. There was never an unreciprocated touch, nor a glance that did not elicit a reaction, be it joy, lust or, as the ballet wore on, uneasiness and despair. Though he has not the puppyish physique that makes the role of des Grieux come as naturally as it does to younger dancers, he turns his strength to his advantage to find a more authoritative Chevalier that suits Osipova's decadent Manon. In the Act II, when he is distraught by Manon's fickleness, his steps were punctuated not with virile frustration, and his anger towards her when she refuses to discard of the bracelet and her weakness for wealth is formidable. Together, Acosta and Osipova create a more virile and fervent pairing, both adopting a no-holds-barred approach. The end result assaults the senses mercilessly - they attack their roles with rabid rapaciousness, riding the highs of Massenet's soaring score without being afraid of the depths of the falls. Where Lamb and Muntagirov were gentle and Nunez and Bonelli were tender, Osipova and Muntagirov were reckless and in this gruesome tale, recklessness is infinitely more rewarding.

The depths they reached were encompassed entirely in the final Act, where our hapless pair seemed weighed down with exhaustion (perhaps not acted, given their complete immersion in the acts prior). She, already trembling in death's grasp, could hardly turn her head to face him - yet, her entire body gravitated towards him. When they step onto the dock, to be harassed by Avis' fascinatingly ghoulish gaoler, they lean on each other - she for strength, and he for sanity. When they are forcibly separated by Avis, we see her vulnerable and preyed upon, so graphically it is upsetting (although, once again, Avis is a real gem). Yet, even when she is thus violated and this helpless Manon grasps blindly for the jewels, it is a more wrenching moment than ever before - it is this greed and consumption that has torn her so convincingly apart.

The final pas de deux was a moment of suspended of wonder. I have spoken admiringly before of Osipova's courage in embracing the gruesome and angular sides of death. Here, it was augmented by true regret. We feel that she wants desperately to live and that she is clinging onto des Grieux in fear - when she runs to him for the devilish throws, there is no sense of bracing herself for the technical demand. Instead, she seems to open her body and completely launch herself into his arms without reserve, trusting and willing him to carry her on. And every move of his is tormented - he is rough, he grasps her fiercely, and he seems to shake with convulsive sorrow. At the close, when he throws her one final time and she plunges straight into his arms, all fight seems to leave both bodies. It is an emotionally destructive performance; they scale heights far too immense to leave room for anything but utter devastation. The end result is quite magnificent.

The entire cast, thankfully, seemed to rise to the occasion with relish. Special mention must go to Thiago Soares, who seemed to improve on his already excellent Lescaut. He performs the part with such security now, and he has a naturally roguish charm which makes the role doubly compelling. Every character in Manon has a flaw - his, most prominently, is cowardice and when the dashing mien peels away to reveal the scrambling, frightened and pitifully pleading Lescaut at the end, it is a disarming contrast. Of all the Lescauts of this run, Soares is the only one that truly commands the role with the swagger and ease that brings it life. Moreover, I was once again struck by the complexity and scale of the Manon production, which truly showcases what able actors the Royal Ballet are. Each harlot has their own personality, each gentleman customer at the brothel has his own taste. This depth of personality makes the entire production echo with poignancy, particularly at the end when, while Manon is lying in delirium in the wasteland, these phantoms of an condemning past flit behind her - telling of her short life.

All in all, it was the type of evening that simply resonates hours and hours after the curtain has dropped. The Royal Opera House's extended Manon run is quickly coming to an end. With only one couple left (the nuanced Zenaida Yanowsky and international hunk Roberto Bolle), I defy them to produce anything close to the magic of this night.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ashton Mixed Programme with the Royal Ballet - Choe, Zucchetti, Padjak, Muntagirov, Osipova and more.

View from Amphi E-81, seated
The rich variation and frequency of triple (or, in this case, quadruple) bills by the Royal Ballet puts a wealth of talent on display all at once. Accordingly, this evening's offerings of Frederick Ashton involved an impressive array of artists, from the starry Natalia Osipova and Vadim Muntagirov, to rapidly rising stars Francesca Hayward and Melissa Hamilton, to solid house favourites Yuhui Choe and Valentino Zucchetti.

The first offering of 'Scenes de Ballet' presents a ballet visualised from almost purely geometric perspectives. Described as Ashton's answer to the Rose Adagio, it needs to be cool, calculated and dramatically sharp. In this regard, the delivery was not perfect. Sloppiness marred impact of the corps, forsaking collective regimentation for unevenness. Even so, the four men in Matthew Ball, David Donnelly, Tomas Mock and Donald Thom performed excellently, with good understanding of Ashton's vision. The two principles. Choe and Zucchetti, danced valiantly, with Zucchetti perhaps stretched to his technical limit. Yet, they still lacked the air of authority that gives this ballet personality. No doubt their partnership is an effective one - they have recently shone as Lescaut and his mistress and in leading the Giselle pas de six. But this ballet suits neither - where Zucchetti lacked the dynamism (most notably in the spins), Choe needed to curtail her natural softness for a harder geometrical edge.

Scenes de Ballet
Immediately following was the curious 'Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan", starring Romany Pajdak in place of the injured Lauren Cuthbertson. With a show of great maturity, Pajdak danced with real sensitivity, and feeling for the piece's namesake - the feeling of a free-spirit who simply loves to dance. Her steps when she crossed the stage were not languid, but excited and hyper feminine. Along with Kate Shipway's tender accompaniment on the piano, the entire performance had a sort of velvet smoothness, an inwards intensity. On pure aesthetics, it was luxurious; the plain background with the solitary piano and swathes of silken scarves dappled in the spotlight. It was an introversive performance by Pajdak as she conveyed a smooth feeling of progression from bohemian freedom to compulsive decadence to the emotional frailty that characterised the dancer's late life. The Five Waltzes is not a piece to 'wow', but it was performed as well as could be.

Five Waltzes - Pajdak, Shipway & rose petals
Next was 'Symphonic Variations', based on music of the same name by Franck, and perhaps the most lauded of Ashton's considerable body of work. The curtain rose on the sinewy silhouettes of the six dancers, poised and assured in front of a lurid yellow background stamped with accents of black. We are bereft of all contextual indicators - neither time nor place nor situation has been conveyed. Yet, it is a powerful sight, potent in its display of solidarity and strength - 'utopia' was the word that sprung to mind. In this vein it continued, most prominently buoyed by Vadim Muntagirov, who seems to have taken to classic roles at Covent Garden with great relish (his recent des Grieux was superb.) With Muntagirov, everything seems to flow seamlessly as a constant harmony of movement and art. Each movement of his is beautifully articulated, with his elegant line cutting an imposing figure. There is never any apparent tenacity or grit required in his dancing; everything seems to be in moving in one continuous languid movement from beginning to end, relying on momentum and the natural grace of the human body to illicit wonder. And indeed, this is what Symphonic Variations embodies; there are very few, if any, dazzling leaps. Extraordinary gravity defying lifts are thin on the ground, and there is a distinct lack of emotional trauma. In their stead, Ashton feasts handsomely upon a celebration of the beauty of movement. That is not to say that the piece is purely aesthetic and hence devoid of emotional attachment; rather, that the emotions that pass between dancer and audience is that of infinite intangibles. What matters is not the lofty jump - it is the tilt of the head, the arch of the foot that makes this piece lend its radiant joy. Overall, tonight's Symphonic Variations perhaps faltered short of its full climatic potential. While the partnership between Muntagirov and the delightful Melissa Hamilton was surprisingly effective, the overall synchrony between the six dancers was not quite as exuberant as it could have been. More authority was required to grasp nirvana fully.

Symphonic Variations

A Month in the Country, the final ballet billed, is a stark contrast to the minimalism of Symphonic Variations, with bonnets, armchairs and miscellaneous props aplenty. The only plot-driven ballet on the programme, it also starred the superlative Natalia Osipova in her role debut as the voracious and lonely mistress, with Federico Bonelli's Beliaev, Francesca Hayward's Vera and James Hay's Kolia completely an impressively strong cast. But among them, one star shone brightest - Osipova, whose acting prowess is once again confirmed. Very few play the imperfect woman better than Osipova; she caries with her a complexed pool of emotions from coquettishness to vengeance to, ultimately, vulnerability.
Here, it is interesting to consider the trajectory of Osipova's career, which has altered significantly since her move to Covent Garden, seen by many as the ultimate coup given her lack of experience with the English style. An undisputed heavyweight in the ballet world, she is one of those rare dancers who could perform nothing but her signature role of Don Quixote every night for the rest of her career, and still be met with a standing ovation night after night. Yet, such is her appetite for a challenge, her time with the Royal Ballet has transfigured her dancing with much more finesse. Her dazzling technique remains thankfully intact, but now it is augmented by real depth of character. In A Month in the Country, which aims to highlight the nuances of drawing-room politics, her character conveys a myriad of conflicting emotions through an arabesque alone. The pas de deux with Bonelli was delightful in its illicitness, and drew the audience wholly into their small world within a world.
Alongside Osipova, there were several performances of the highest calibre. Hayward as her young ward was girlish and unaffected, truly a potent contrast to Osipova's womanly conflict. James Hay as her son spun faster and faster around the stage in a blaze of gold. The entire cast seemed to move in perfect tandem, conveying the minutia of the tale perfectly. It is a story of stolen caresses and missed moments, told through blazing glances of secret longing. In this regard, the cast delivered in its entirety, painting a realistic and tender picture.

A Month in the Country

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Leonidas Kavakos & Yuja Wang at the Barbican Centre

Kavakos/Wang from the Circle

Given the star power of Wang, it came as something of a surprise to me that despite the balcony level not opening, there was a sparse crowd. The circle level, where I sat, was only half full, prompting a mass exodus to the empty front seats once the lights dimmed. Indeed, the Barbican centre seemed to be a rather clumsy venue for Brahm's works of lyricism, lacking the intimacy that often causes the works to glow from the inside.

The first offering from Kavakos and Wang, the G Major sonata, was a tentative affair. A beguilingly personal sonata, in which nothing is self-proclaiming and relies  upon and gentle phrasing, it requires the performers to bring out the musical ability of their respective instruments and be led not virtuosic skill, but voice. In this respect, Kavakos/Wang's rendition failed to capture this whimsically organic spirit. The first movement felt rushed in critical moments, and the rigidity of their approach was demonstrated by Kavakos' tense posture - for the first sonata, he hardly moved from the spot. While Brahms' sonatas are to be played sweetly and naturalistic, that does not mean that should linger not on phrases. The first two sonatas are pervaded with an ethereal whisper, secret and tender, almost cloying in its simplicity. Sent by Brahms to comfort Clara Schumann after the loss of her child, it uses themes from her favourite Riegenlied in all three movements. Given the private nature of this origin, and the regretful circumstances accompanying its creation, this maturely quiet wistfulness was absent from the night's performance (perhaps not surprisingly so, given the comparative youth of both  Kavakos and Wang). The success of this sonata relies heavily on phrasing, and often throughout all three movements, Kavakos seemed a little hasty and curt, curtailing themes before their natural end. These works leave both violin and piano extremely exposed - even more so in a cavernous hall such as the Barbican. During the climatic passage of the third moment, it felt very much like it was Brahms coaxing the euphoria, not Kavakos/Wang.

The A Major sonata was much improved. Both performers (Kavakos in particular) took a much freer approach, and allowed the melody to soar. Brahms' second sonata is much less troubled than the first, with a sense of real tranquility. It is also in this sonata that Brahms' extensive knowledge of choral work really shines. Accordingly, both performers took on a much stronger voice, with Wang in particular playing with sensitivity. Titled "Sonata for Piano and Violin" rather than "Violin and Piano", Brahms gives the piano a real sense of lyricism, and allows it to introduce most themes. Kavakos, increasingly comfortable, complemented this role realignment well in the Allegro amabile. In the andante tranquil, they were careful not to be over-empathetic, but perhaps more care could have been taken with the Andante theme. It was only in the third movement, however, that Kavakos seemed to truly relax and demonstrate the full scale of his remarkable ability. Taking great relish in the gregarious and stately Allegretto, Kavakos played with confidence, with a more open sound, revelling in the more structured movement. He seemed more at home with grandeur than the introversive nature of the preceding movements, and finished the first half of the recital with full voice.

Given this clear preference of style, the final D minor sonata gave us a Kavakos transformed. The change was remarkable; from the first bar, his body moved along with the music, no longer rigidly still as before. The drama of the D minor sonata gave him a yellow-brick road to follow, and he traversed it gladly. He and Wang conjured a heady sense of urgency, ripe and mature, and the voices of the instruments sang in perfect harmony at last, with both the Allegro and Presto agitato reminding us of their astounding abilities.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Rolando Villazon Opera Gala at the Royal Festival Hall

Villazon, Matshikiza & Voronkov

There are certain singers whom I will always reserve a special place for, artists I credit for instigating my prolonged love affair with the art of opera. Rolando Villazon is one such person - his impassioned performance with Anna Netrebko made Massenet's Manon the first opera I fell in love with. Since then, my knowledge of the classical arts has expanded considerably, a growth which unfortunately coincided with Villazon's various health issues and his slight vocal decline from the heights of 2006-07. Nevertheless, it has long been my ardent wish to see him perform in the flesh, for what this artist has to offer stretches far beyond the confines of opera. His natural gaiety I have long since admired, and no matter the condition of his throat, there is a frankness to his tone that lends his performances beautiful heart.

The programme could be easily divided into quarters, the first of which paid tribute to French expression and was heavily dominated by the songs of Jules Massenet. Massenet, in any form, is lyric music, lyrical to the very extreme. Hence, it does not seem a natural choice for Villazon, whose voice is coloured with plenty of warmth but very little reserve. A purist (and the average Frenchman) would disagree with his approach and pronunciation; but in terms of passion, he delivered strongly. His opening aria, 'Ah! Tout est bien fini' was a prime example of this; he took what was, in its original conception, a beseeching prayer of piety and transfigured it into a vigorous outpour of torment.

Yet the effect was nevertheless, profoundly riveting. His gift is for sincerity is immense, and it has a great capacity to impart joy, sweeping all concerns over detail aside. I am, perhaps, a perfect example of the generation who relies on Youtube to further their classical education, but absolutely nothing is even comparable to his effect live. Appearing onstage with a broad maverick's smile, he furrowed that heavy brow and the first notes out his throat were so fantastically warm and emotive. Belief seemed to weigh down every phrase, right through to the ecclesiastical end. So earthy and wondrous is his sound that all one can do is close their eyes in ecstasy and revel in its glory. In doing so, we understood and accepted; Villazon strives not for authenticity nor perfection but to compel with his earnestness.

Following on from the loud cheer he earned, burgeoning young talent Matshikiza gave her first appearance of the evening, with Massenet's Elegie (a song which has coincidentally been heavily featured these weeks as the music accompanying the first pas de deux MacMillan's ballet at the Royal Opera House). She showed a clear voice and natural expression, but there were some intonation problems that would continue to plague her throughout the first half.

The grand duet of this first quarter was disappointingly underwhelming, particularly given this the lusciousness of Bizet's orchestration. Neither voice seemed to have truly warmed up yet, and while Villazon was clearly comfortable in a role he has sung many times before, Matshikiza's inexperience showed. Not entirely convincing as the spiry priestess, she also missed the high note before the final refrain of the climatic ainsi que toi je me souviens.

By contrast, the Italian quarter was much improved. Villazon's solo 'E la solita storia del pastore' showcased the true power of his voice. The Italianate school requires none of the nuanced restraint of the French, and accordingly, Villazon soared with a great sense of relief. Whatever he feels, he seems to feel more keenly than any other - he sings like a man who lives life with grand relish. As his arms gesticulated grandly, the glorious richness of his voice, almost velvety in its flight, permeated the large hall with remarkable ease. When he is anguished, there is no plane of his face that is not distorted in distress and when he is overjoyed he, quite simply, glows. The transfixed audience gave him his due reward. Matshikiza's 'Signore Ascolta' displayed her renewed confidence; however she still lacks an edge of credibility to her performances. While Villazon's level of immersion is perhaps excessive, Matshikiza could do with emoting more, even if it is only a gala rendition. Nevertheless, their climatic 'O Soave Fanciulla' which closed the first half was headily intoxicating in its dashing passion.

We proceeded, then, to the light-hearted, humorous third quarter, where both Villazon and Matshikiza excelled. Any person at all familiar with Villazon's repertoire will know how he has made the role of Nemorino in Donizetti's 'L'elisir D'amore' his own, as both performer and director. When he bounded out after the interval, beer and juggling props in hand, he was completely in his element. In his infectious exuberance, Villazon dotes upon the crowd; his head turns to look at the audience on every tier, he laughs freely and smiles with the room at large. His Nemorino was pandering, playful and, most importantly, lovable. In an art that is often berated for taking itself too seriously and of having jokes too secular for a wider audience, Villazon straddles the world of entertainment and artistic clarity with apparent ease. His entire approach can be summarised by his rendition of the famous aria 'Una furtiva lagrima' - in the beginning, his voice was slightly raspy and in his earnestness, he leant heavily on every note like a crutch, which slightly distorted the beginnings of his phrases. Yet, the emotion rang true. In the place of sobriety was desperation and when his hand, trembling slightly, reached out before him, it was a gesture of deep-rooted tenderness. His rendition betrays not vulnerability (for Nemorino is far too stupid for that) but pernicious hope, radiating in a sweet sigh of longing that held the audience spellbound. When his Nemorino declares "Si puo morir d'amor!" ("I could die of love!") with such simple yearning, it is delectably irresistible.

The final quarter of the programme was a feast of Spanish song, giving Mexican born Villazon a rare chance perform in his native language. He did so with vigour; his 'Ya mis horas felices' was my personal highlight of the evening with its unapologetically dark drama. The final duet on the programme, 'Si, torero quiero se,' complete with little sashays across the stage from both singers, seemed a great love letter from stage to audience. It is such a gift, this blessing of both song and happiness. He exudes sunshine, this man. When he performs, there is no gap between him and his audience, save his immense talent. By the time they finished their last high notes, arms outstretched as if to embrace the entire world, the audience had succumbed entirely to their combined charms. Together, they produced the kind of evening where one has to simply forget all technical expectations and requirements and just luxuriate in the incandescent expression of the art. Indeed, after the three roaring encores, the stranger in the seat next to mine turned, with a dreamy expression suffused on his countenance, and murmured in awe; "what a wonderful, wonderful evening!"

Receiving the adulation

Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra

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

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Osipova in MacMillan's Manon at the Royal Opera House

Such was the impact that Natalia Osipova made during her first season at Covent Garden that the ticket sales for her first performance of the second, as Manon in MacMillan's ballet, resembled a war zone. Sold out within hours of opening to the general public, I finally managed to procure a day ticket online on the day of the performance. Having pretty much missed Osipova in a full-length ballet all last season (having a poor seat for Giselle and her being injured for both scheduled performances of Sleeping Beauty) I was determined to be there to see the dancer I had so long admired.
The view from C:20 - balcony level
Manon is not, however, a ballet that seems immediately suited for Osipova. Her greatest feature has long since been her remarkable technique - those airy, ecstatic leaps! Those dizzying spins! MacMillan's choreography is rather bereft of these showpiece passages. In its stead are enormous lifts, devilish in their apparent ease, and a sordid tale accompanied by unapologetic choreography. Professedly Russian (and with a tendency to be 'Bolshoi'), I myself had doubts about Osipova's approach to this English ballet. The past season saw her blow such misconceptions out the water with a mesmerisingly haunted Giselle - could she possibly do it again?
Full House
The answer is yes - ostensibly. The moment she first stepped onto the stage, it was clear - there are few actresses of Osipova's calibre at the Royal Ballet. She embodied Manon with every fibre of her being. Such is her entrance; fluttering forth from the carriage, she does not outstretch her arms to luxuriate in the warm reception - both on and off stage - instead, her dark eyes are already sparkling with mirth and mischief, darting around in search of pleasure. Her characterisation surprised many; it was so unapologetically narcissistic, but never cruel. This is the true conception that Prevost wished to portray in his original novel. His Manon was never a wide-eyed ingenue - to play her thus would be an insult to the virile defence of love that characterises the entire novel. Nor is she ever malicious or cruel; des Grieux remarks that he never doubts that her love is as true as his, but it is eclipsed, not obliterated, by her voracity for pleasure. In this respect, Osipova was superb. She danced with every ounce of loveliness befitting a beautiful young girl, her head turned at every compliment. Through it all, there was the odd sense of premonition that had also pervaded her Giselle - the feeling of a candle  burning too fiercely bright, of a rapaciousness that hastens the inevitable end. Her Manon's love of pleasure was not incidental but determined - determined to sample all the fruits of life for fear of them spoiling. The first pas de deux between her and Acosta's des Grieux (in which they fall in love) emanated that feeling. This tenacious Manon was not in awe of this new flurry of emotions; instead, she revelled in her sexual awakening with peculiar curiosity. When she spun in his arms, she opened her body completely to him; and in the climatic lift, she froze while aloft in the air, as if fearful of disrupting these awakened sensibilities before her eyes shut in ecstasy and she tumbled down into her lover's arms. 

Remarkable as it seems, this was only the first out of four manifestations of Osipova's Manon. In the latter half of the bedroom pas des deux, we met yet another girl, with a veracious appetite for sex and blooming confidence in her own desirability. Her gaze was still playful, but yet more predatory. Each movement, each caress of her gown or step across the stage was hyper-aware. When she stopped to kiss her love, it wasn't a mere confirmation of affection, but a sudden need to feel the sensation of skin upon skin. Whatever this Manon felt, she felt keenly - it was this kind of heady pursuit of pleasure that made her downfall all the more believable. 

The last vision of Manon is one that is more broken than others. Just as Osipova's Act 2 Giselle last year took on a hauntingly macabre chill, her Manon has angular and disjointed; she isn't afraid to forsake what she feels embodies realism for the sake of aesthetic pleasure. As it is, it suits both her and her Manon - both of them aim higher, burn more fiercely, immerse themselves more recklessly that there must be an adverse reaction. The higher their euphoria soars, the more maiming the downfall. When Manon appearing in Act 3, she seemed barely conscious. Her feet moved, but her gaze was blank - she had already left. The final pas de deux displayed this post powerfully - from the beginning where des Griex held her weak body aloft, he was willing her to live. And Manon - she wants to live more than any other, but were beauty has fled there is now only tenacity. So she gathers her energy to leap into his arms over and over - only to lose her energy, becoming dangerously limp until he is dancing with a corpse. 

Most remarkably, however, all facets of Osipova's Manon were flawlessly interlinked. Through all the guises of mischievous girl, young lover, ambitious courtesan and demeaned prostitute, there remains the same spirit in them all - a mere twitch on the thread can bring them all back to the beginning. Hers is not the first Manon I have seen this season, but it is the most comprehensive, by some distance.
Osipova! Osipova! Osipova!
However, some lingering doubts remain over the wisdom of her partnership with Acosta. As of now, the Royal Ballet is more stacked in their male principals than females. With a wealth of talent including my personal favourite Edward Watson, Steven McCrae and the new Vadim Muntagirov, it is surprising that they persist in billing Osipova alongside Acosta who will be retiring at the end of next season. His arabesques are not so free now, his steps not quite as springy. Although he doesn't appear laboured by any means, his portrayal of des Grieux as a devoted youth failed to conjure much chemistry with Osipova's decadent Manon. While she had sensuality in spadefuls, it did not seem particularly directed at him. Inevitably, Acosta has not the fire and alacrity he had in his youth, and as it is, they lacked in dynamism. 

Nevertheless, many of the other aspects of the performance seemed elevated too, in her presence. Thiago Soares' return as Lescaut was a fantastically welcome addition - he and Calvert were true gems. While Soares' finishing still left something to be desired, his drunk adagio was superb, and his acting as good as always. Calvert matched her partner's heights with equally masterful comic timing. Together they coaxed rapturously loud applause. For the first time this season, the orchestra seemed to play in perfect tandem with the dancing - none of the pas de deus sequences seemed dragged out, as was the case on the previous two occasions I was at Covent Garden. 

Overall, it was certainly a memorable evening - I came back from Covent Garden will all my objectives thoroughly satisfied. For the first time in this run, I believed in Manon and lived her short life with her - bravo Osipova!