"Manon": Kent and Gomes

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 12 , 2007 (evening)

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2007 by Leigh Witchel

Reliability seems like such a dull virtue. It’s only dull if it’s the only one on offer. There was a period in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s when Darci Kistler was reliably on stage several nights a week. That wasn’t dull.  Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent are two of American Ballet Theater’s reliable stars, but they can be counted on for more than just showing up. Both Gomes and Kent were pinch-hitting on Tuesday night in “Manon.”  Vladimir Malakhov withdrew before the start of the season due to injury; Diana Vishneva pulled out of the performance a few days ago because of illness. Kent and Gomes delivered a performance.

“Manon,” choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, is based on the 18th century French novel “Manon Lescaut” by Abbé Prévost about a courtesan torn between love and avarice. It isn’t as familiar to audiences as “Swan Lake” or “Romeo and Juliet” and it shows in sparser attendance. The ballet is a counterweight to MacMillan’s version of “Romeo.” Both ballets have star turns for secondary leads (Lescaut and Mercutio are parallel roles) but they are held together by the duets for the main couple. “Manon’s” corps de ballet is more choreographically developed than “Romeo’s”; MacMillan does more with courtesans than streetwalkers.

Kent was a tall, willowy Manon, pale-skinned and patrician — part Gainsborough, part Madame X.  She tends away from emoting and towards more realistic expression. Her acting was subtle; in the Act II brothel dance, she stayed in character as a woman who has learned to conceal her actual feelings.  She created a layered portrait of the choices available to a woman about to enter a convent (one of the few independent options available to a woman before the industrial age besides prostitution) who discovered that sex brings her power and wealth.

Gomes’ acting is more full-bodied and physical. He’s Brazilian, and everything he feels is projected not only in his expression but also in his long sustained legato and yearning arabesque. He has sensual legs like the scroll of a violin; besides passion, his portrayal of Des Grieux was filled with perfectly centered, silken turns.  He and Kent complement each other in approach and also physically in a very sympathetic partnership.

Sascha Radetsky seems primarily to be cast by ABT in roles such as Lescaut and Iago, yet he doesn’t have the sort of dark charisma to pull them off. He’s more believable and at his best in the comic, drunk moments in the second act; the first act solo is also technically slightly over his head. Carmen Corella was amiably comic as Lescaut’s mistress. Kent’s husband, Victor Barbee, ironically plays des Grieux’ wealthy but callous rival Monsieur G.M. and partners his wife on their first encounter as if he were inspecting her for hoof and mouth disease. In the first act, Arron Scott had no difficulty with the complicated turns leading the beggars’ dance.

There’s also a parallel between “Manon” and Frederick Ashton’s earlier “Marguerite and Armand.” Manon Lescaut is the literary predecessor of Marguerite Gautier; in Dumas’ 19th century novel the characters watch a ballet performance of an earlier version of “Manon Lescaut.”  When MacMillan sets the fevered visions of Manon in the final act, it brings to mind the opening scene in Ashton’s earlier ballet where Marguerite is also hallucinating from her past. For the difference between MacMillan and Ashton, one need only look at the scenes with Manon or Marguerite and their admirers. In Ashton, the men do little more than kiss Marguerite’s hand; in MacMillan the salon is a metaphor for the bedroom and she is passed aloft from man to man. Being MacMillan, he also managed to include implied fellatio during the scene with the Jailer.

The production is handsome and opulent (MacMillan’s usual designer, Nicholas Georgiadis, was responsible here as well) and each duet for the principals is interesting on its own, but the dancing alone can’t carry the plot. In Act I, Manon and Des Grieux seem to bump into each other and they’re in love and dancing; unlike “Romeo”, the audience isn’t familiar enough with the story to fill in the gaps. “Manon” requires leads with star power to pull it off — the original partnership was Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley. Kent and Gomes may be reliable, but they’ve also got the stagecraft to be convincing and affecting.

Volume 5, No. 24
June 18, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Leigh Witchel

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