Natalia Osipova's début as Manon has inevitably aroused curiosity in dance circles as this ballet is one of the cornerstones of the Royal Ballet's repertory, a company she will be joining later this month.
This curiosity was satisfied last night when the Russian superstar gave an excellent account of the role, with Milan's La Scala Ballet. She doesn't yet seem to have fully assimilated the part emotionally, especially during the early scenes which offer the opportunity for complex reactions to the new world in which she finds herself, but technically she was perfect, with exquisite upper body movement, and expressive legs and feet.
The coquettishness of the party scene seems to come more naturally to Osipova than the uncertainty of the first act. She rides above the difficulties of the choreography with ease, playing with every gesture as though she's danced it a thousand times. The last act reveals a fragile waif that Guillems and Zakharovas can't hope to equal; their height inescapably lends them a regal edge. Kenneth MacMillan created his ballet on the petite Antoinette Sibley, and while Sylvie Guillem is maybe my favourite Manon, the sight of the little broken sparrow which emerged from the mist at La Scala was heartbreaking.
Osipova was paired with Claudio Coviello, the youngest company principal, and this is their third ballet together. On point she is taller than he is, and some of the partnering at the beginning seemed tentative. However, as with Osipova's characterization, confidence grew during the course of the ballet and the pair bloomed gloriously during the final pas de deux. Coviello has an enviable technique, and is certainly more at home during his solos, but his promotion through the ranks from corps member to principal in just a few months means that pairing at this level is still new to him. He will be 22 on New Year's Eve, and certainly his meekness on stage will be left behind soon after.
A La Scala dancer who is decidedly not meek is Mick Zeni, who plays Manon's brother Lescaut with masculine swagger. He is a fine actor with a strong stage presence. He is matched by a spot-on performance from Alessandra Vassallo as his mistress. The strange thing is that they almost fail to get a laugh in the ‘drunk' pas de deux. While it's true that anglo-saxon audiences roar with laughter at gags far more than their latin counterparts, it was also because it was played too straight. MacMillan created this scene to get laughs, rather as Shakespeare introduces the porter in Macbeth just before the final horrors. If the inebriated Lescaut can get us to laugh, we'll cry far more easily when life ebbs from his sister's body.
Massimo Garon as Monsieur G.M. was well judged and suitably slimy, and there was excellent support from Monica Vaglietti as Madame, Alessandro Grillo's gaoler, and a dazzling beggar chief from Valerio Lunadei.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.