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I'VEsaid before that the partnership of Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru in Manon during the Royal Ballet's 2002/03 season was untouchable. Amend that statement. It has been equalled with a tour de force performance from Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle in the latest staging.

Massenet's music, none of which comes from his opera of the same subject, moves from joy and romance to despair, with the violins working overtime under the excellent conductor Martin Yates. Nicholas Georgiadis' flexible designs must be among the finest he did in his long association with Covent Garden, and Kenneth MacMillan's choreography is just about as good as it comes.

The prelude, though, was slightly ruined by the sound of sweets being unwrapped. Now I don't want to point the finger, but what is it with these aged people. If they have to suck mints why can't they stick them in their mouths BEFORE the music starts?

"Do you want a mint, mother." "Not yet father. It hasn't started." "It has now. That man's waving his stick about. Here have a Polo." "Crinkle, bloody, crinkle"

The announcer tells us to switch off our mobiles and pagers, but they don't tell people to switch off their bloody sweet wrappers. Perhaps I should I should get a ring tone of a pack of liquorice allsorts being ripped apart. And as for the coughing, don't get me started on that again. Coughers, like smokers, should be consigned to the pavement.

On with the show

Now where was I? Oh yes. Abbé Prévost's story, circa 1730, although the ballet is set at the end of the 18th century, is of Manon (Bussell) who is passing through Paris on her way to a convent. She attracts the attentions of a student, Des Grieux (Bolle), and the wealthy Monsieur GM (Christopher Saunders). Manon, who like Julie Andrews quite clearly is not cut out to be a nun, falls immediately in love with Des Grieux in a busy street scene and we are led into the first of four pas de deux between the pairing that are as good as anything in any ballet anywhere. And is there a more romantic piece of music for dancing to than Elegie: o doux printemps, reprised a couple of more times during the performance, although another half-a-dozen reprises would not have been too many.

But Monsieur GM has not given up his quest for Manon and takes on board her creepy brother, Lescaut (the magnificent Ricardo Cervera), who has a price for anything.

Their next pas de deux comes soon after in the bedroom scene at De Grieux's lodging where their love is all-but consummated, with Bolle stealing a few too many kisses, but who can blame him? It ends with Bussell diving on to the four-poster in the joy of someone who has just discovered their first love. When De Grieux goes to post a letter Lescaut and Monsieur GM turn up and persuade Manon to go off with GM in a pas de trois in which both men manipulate her feelings, although financial riches can be a persuasive argument on its own and as we have already seen she has more u-turns than a politician in an election campaign.

De Grieux tries to persuade Manon to return to him at a party given by Monsieur GM. She tells him to win some of GM's money at cards, but he is caught cheating. As La Traviata also has a card scene, the Opera House is going to have to get a gaming licence soon. Despite this, their love is rekindled before the police arrive.

It is Manon who is deported, to New Orleans, as a prostitute, but before that Lescaut, who is to blame for her misgivings, is killed as he tries to protect her - too little, too late short arse. For once we are left to pity a rather pitiless character.

Magnificent Bolle

Des Grieux goes to the penal colony with Manon, who is abused by the brutal Gaoler (William Tuckett, rightly promoted from being a mere Client in the last staging and someone whose profile at Covent Garden gets bigger with each performance). It is a harrowing scene made stronger not only by Tuckett's sexual predator, but by Bussell's waif-like appearance with cropped hair and rags as clothes. Des Grieux kills the Gaoler and they escape.

The last scene is one of the most powerful on any stage. The two of them, with Manon now ravaged by the fever that will soon kill her (her hands "cold and trembling"), go through the Louisiana swamp where in the background the cast of characters from her diamond-encrusted time with Monsieur GM remind her of what was and what could have been. It is a dying person watching their life go before them.

Bolle is magnificent. Blimey we don't see enough of him at Covent Garden; tall, dark hair, dashing, he is up there with Jonathan Cope, Carlos Acosta and Kobborg. He and Bussell, back to her finest after these rather too-frequent childbearing absences and certainly more confident than her return last autumn in Sylvia, dance their final pas de deux, and the hope of Act 1 has been replaced with the realisation that death is close. It is touching; it is breathtaking.

Manon, for me, is the finest ballet of all, where the music, choreography and designs all come together in perfect unison.

Review by Peter Wilson

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