American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 11 , 2007 (evening)

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2007 by Susan Reiter

The evening felt like a throwback, imbued with that sense of excitement, a performance that must not be missed. There was even, dare one say, a touch of glamour to the occasion. With Alessandra Ferri down to her final three ABT performances — all of them in the Kenneth MacMillan roles that have been her forte for a quarter-century — and her regular La Scala partner Roberto Bolle making his ABT debut opposite her, the season’s first “Manon” felt special from the start and turned into the kind of memorable performance one does not encounter with great frequency these days. It was an evening when high expectations were more than amply rewarded.

Yes, this was “Manon,” that 1974 potboiler that ABT has been over-exposing year after year since taking it into the rep in 1993. Last season, it provided Julio Bocca with his farewell role, and offered loyal admirers one last occasion for the celebrated Ferri-Bocca partnership. She has also danced the ballet in recent years with Bolle, and while she is saying goodbye to her two touchstone roles, she is also introducing New York audiences to Bolle, a tall, hunky yet touchingly boyish danseur who was also a favored partner of Darcey Bussell in recent years.

As Des Grieux, he partnered Ferri effortlessly and delivered the extensive unfurlings of lyrical yet intricate impassioned choreography with panache. As a dramatic presence, he still has a ways to go, but his elegant bearing and clarity of phrasing were impressive. His long, eloquent legs are beautifully stretched, and he communicates an impassioned respect for the niceties of classical detail. Yet he was very much a flesh-and-blood figure on stage, caught up in the momentous events and manipulations that direct his sad fate.

Ferri is so deeply attuned to every nuance of the title role that she seems to convey her character with every breath and reaction. In a rivetingly complete yet seemingly spontaneous portrayal, she communicates the eagerness, delight and avarice of a young girl whose allure is a potent bargaining chip, in the corrupt society she inhabits. Playfully tempting such hapless suitors as the lumbering Old Man with whom she is initially seen, she is in no way prepared for the sudden, complete rush of sensual attraction that she and Des Grieux experience. Nor is she any match for the financial manipulations and power games that are in Monsieur G.M.’s arsenal.

It seems as if Ferri has danced this role forever, and her maturity and depth of understanding enable her to convey all its shadings and emotional developments with effortless sublety. The almost giddy, effusive creature of Act One gives way to the restrained, poised woman who is clearly negotiating a proscribed code of behavior with every step. Flitting lusciously and heedlessly among various men in her creamy dress during Act One, she becomes an obedient figure in black who submits with painful passivity to the greedy hands of the effete, powdered men who pass her among them during Act Two’s robust celebration of the pleasures of the flesh.

The crucial pas de deux between Manon and Des Grieux charted the course of their doomed love most eloquently on this occasion. From the heedless abandon of their first bedroom scene, they progressed to the tortured choices they faced when they returned there in defiance of her accepted role. Ferri and Bolle conveyed the ambivalence and fervor of the moment, as they opted to let their passions rule and face the inevitable consequences. Having lost all and been banished to the Louisiana penal colony, they clung to each other helplessly and somehow transcended the banal melodrama of the final scene (fevered visions of past glories dance by as they writhe in the ropey swamps!) to suggest the utter despair and loss of their plight.

There is melodrama galore in the ballet, but an exemplary cast made one forgive, if not completely forget, its over-the-top excesses and lack of subtlety. Ethan Stiefel made an unscheduled debut as Lescaut, Manon’s cunning procurer of a brother. He inhabited the role vividly and danced it thrillingly, giving his Act Two drunken solo a witty edge. He seemed liberated by getting to portray the bad boy, delighting in his machinations. In one of MacMillan’s less subtle touches, Lescaut opens the ballet as the motionless center of a slowly accumulating swirl of activity, and in Stiefel’s portrayal he was ever alert to all that was going on in every corner, always on the lookout for how to take advantage.

Gillian Murphy had a grand time as Lescaut’s mistress, turning her into a sunny vixen or comfortably loose morals and dancing with buoyant vigor and snap. Adding immeasurably to the luscious spell cast by this “Manon” were Georgina Parkinson as Madame, the seen-it-all veteran who expertly turns pleasure into business, and especially Victor Barbee, whose portrayal of Monsieur G.M. must rank among the great character performances in ballet. He creates an outwardly respectable yet sinister, dangerous figure, whose lurid tracing of Manon’s shapely legs and feet during the pivotal, unsettling trio with her brother that secures their alliance, suggests unspeakable, unseemly desires.

Photo: Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle in "Manon." Photo by MIRA.

Volume 5, No. 24
June 18, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Susan Reiter

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