Manon: Afterthoughts about Second Bananas

L’Histoire de Manon

In French, the supporting role is called a spare knife – second couteau – and the dancers in these roles can sharpen the focus of the leading couple or even completely change the dramatic flow.  That’s why galas, where a relentless series of pas de deux take place in an emotional vacuum, bore me.  Spare knives carve out a much richer imaginary universe.  Bananas smell good.

Furthermore, what in opera often ends up as a simple tenor/baritone soprano/mezzo dichotomy can get nicely messed up in dance. You need years of retraining to move from Amneris’s shoes into Aida’s.  But nothing unsurmountingly physical prevents you from embodying Gamzatti one night and Nikiya the next.  Slap on costume and go out on stage.  Every second banana could be the next étoile.

Yet MacMillan’s Manon troubles the waters of this ideal.

By decreeing that Antony Dowell and David Wall alternate playing lover or brother, the troubling MacMillan surely added incestuous undertones to the sibling relationship.  [At least in La Bayadère Gamzatti does not turn out to be Solor’s sister].  Manon, torn between the two, must make us wonder whom she loves most deeply.

Mathieu Ganio’s perfect symbiosis with Ciaravola occasionally made me think of the word “twin.”         But then the pairing of Florian Magnenet/des Grieux and Audric Bezard/Lescaut brought twins to mind too, creating a different dynamic to which Ciaravola responded.  Not just because they are tall, dark and handsome (the Paris company harbors quite a few dishy men), but because both possess a similar stage presence.  They radiated youthful power and passion in equal measure, yet in a more down-to-earth manner.  A bit rough at the edges. The characters they embodied will never write their memoirs.  Ganio’s poet will.  These two belonged too much to this world, both too impulsive and inclined to live in the moment.

Audric Bézard’s Lescaut proved to be a really charmingly self-assured rascal.  You could root for him.  The way he grinned and ruffled the hair of Alistair Madin’s thieving Beggar King sent three messages out our way:  1)  cool how you’ve dunned Monsieur G.M.  2) I loved your variation that came after mine but we both know even your whirling dervishness can’t upstage me.  3) Hah, good for you!

Enter Ciaravola.  With a brother like this, could she pretend to be as other-wordly as on May 3rd?  No, only hopeful.  This brother made one imagine they’d already been orphaned for years and lived only for each other. He provided a substitute father and an appealing, if warped, mirror.  You could understand how he had used his charm and wits in order to insinuate himself into G.M.’s circle and why G.M. kind of trusted him.  Audric Bezard was everyone’s brother, loved and tolerated by all and sundry, despite his obvious desperation for easy money.

If Bezard wasn’t Prévost’s pimp, Stéphane Bullion, reacting to Ciaravola’s persona and forcing her to react to his, seemed to be one at the first performance I saw.  After the first act on May 3, quite a few people thought that Lescaut might be Manon’s domineering former lover. (I wander around evesdropping and chatting during intermissions).  They deemed Bullion’s characterization as that fierce:  possessively and jealously protective even as he sold her to the money-bags. Yet on May 13, facing Clairemarie Osta, a fraternal quality emerged in his Lescaut.

The contrasts became sharp in how Manon reacted when G.M. shot Lescaut.  In Bezard, Ciaravola lost a soul-mate; with Bullion, she only saw blood and real violence for the first time.  Osta keened over losing her brother, and used her fists the way he must have once taught her to do.

Not only do leads need second bananas, supporting actors need leads. And need each other. So now that Lescaut is dead, I’d like go back in time to talk about The Mistress, who could be Manon in the future or everything Manon is not.

Aurelia Bellet’s earthy and airy Mistress stood up to (and tried to make stand up) her giddy Bézard as we howled with laughter during the drunken pas in Act II.. These two made this off-balance parody of a MacMillan pas de deux seem just as death-defying as those of the heroes.  Cléopold referenced that early review where “if you are Antony Dowell, I must be Antoinette Sibley”…well, here we got:  “if we’ve landed up in Kenneth MacMillan, then we must be out of our minds.  You mean, we are supposed to do that? But upside down or just where, huh?”

Bellet’s Mistress could best be described as a “sweetie.”  Deeply even more unworldly and less clever then Manon, but infinitely more cheerful.  In it for having a good time, a hapless baby sister

Such momentary pleasures didn’t interest the character crafted  to the same steps by Alice Renavand.  Ice-cold when faced with Ciaravola yet firey-hot when trying to counter Osta, her Mistress reacted to one as rival and the other as potential sister-in-law.  At both performances, I enjoyed the majestically-timed accelerations and decelerations as she swept her legs up and around with elegantly-controlled aplomb.  That forceful swirling use of legs defined her character:  self-controlled, self-contained, self-sufficient.

Manon and Des Grieux collapse from exhaustion in Act III.  Each night while walking home I began to imagine an Act IV.  Renavand’s Mistress will certainly launch a putsch to take over Madame’s bordello at the Hôtel de Translyvanie and make Monsieur G.M suffer. Aurelia Bellet’s Mistress will shed hot tears over Lescaut for a long time but will end up living happily ever after with Monsieur G.M.

If second bananas can make you wonder about their fates, then they done good.

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