Boulevard Solitude Brings WNO’s ‘Fallen Women’ Season to a Satisfying Conclusion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Henze, Boulevard Solitude: (Production Premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Operas / Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 26.2.2014 (GPu)

Armand des Grieux – Jason Bridges
Manon Lescaut – Sarah Tynan
Lescaut – Benjamin Bevan
Monsieur Lilaque – Adrian Thompson
Francis – Alastair Moore
Young Lilacque – Laurence Cole
Mr. Man – Tomasz Wygoda
Actors – Justyna Białowas, Katarzyna Hołtra, Joanna Jeffries,Gordon Brandie, Michał Ciecka, Nicholas Keegan, Ashley James Orwin

Director – Marius Trelínski
Set Designer – Boris Kudlička
Costume Designer – Marek Adamski
Lighting Designer – Felice Ross
Choreographer – Tomasz Wygoda
Video Production Designer – Bartek Macias
Assistant Conductor – Timothy Burke
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris

Essentially the same production and design was responsible both for the production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut which opened WNO’s season of operas under the banner ‘Fallen Women’ and for the production of Henze’s Boulevard Solitude which closed it. Most reviewers and such members of the audience as I have talked to seem to have agreed with me in finding the Manon Lescaut irritating and rather more obfuscatory than illuminating. Indeed when director and designers took their bow at the end of the first night performance they were greeted with a smattering of boos. At the end of Boulevard Solitude, on the other hand, they were quite warmly applauded.

As I had anticipated  when seeing the Manon, much the same set and more than a few other design features, as well as the general directorial ethos, were repeated in the work by Henze, but with rather more justification and to altogether more successful effect. No more attempt was made to make the setting specific to post second World War Paris than had been made to reproduce  the time and place of Puccini’s opera. But where the ‘modern-timeless’ world of the Manon production, robbed much of the music and text of meaning, here the same kind of setting served to let the power of Boulevard Solitude resonate beyond any merely time- and place-specific considerations and suggest how universal a ‘myth’ sustains it. There were still a few irritating features: I quickly grew weary of the slow-motion antics of the police officers as they repeatedly walked to and fro across the stage, for example. But the use of several pig-headed (literally) men as exemplars of those besotted by this Manon was visually effective and also linked her to figures such as Circe. Likewise, the doubles for Manon, silent women of much the same build as Sarah Tynan and dressed, as she largely was throughout, in black stockings and suspenders helped one to see her not so much as an individual and more as a type, even as a type manufactured by society. The patterns of repetition in movement and pose (even if occasionally becoming wearisome) also served to suggest cyclical patterns of love and desire, self-destruction and misery rather than offering us Armand and Manon as unique ‘tragic’ figures. Neither music nor text seems to make claims of that scale for them and the production wisely didn’t seek to inflate the characters in that way.

Henze’s score was more beautiful and powerful than I had realised from my only previous encounter with it – on CD. No doubt Lothar Koenigs should take much credit for doing something like full justice to the score. He and the orchestra seemed equally at home, equally vivid in their playing, whether in the passages of serial writing, the echoes of Stravinskyean neo-classicism or, indeed, of Stan Kenton and music hall, Milhaud or quasi-Berg. At times both score and libretto felt like a ninety-minute reprise of musical, and specifically operatic, history. It was extraordinary to hear Jason Bridges’ Armand singing of himself as an Orpheus seeking his ‘chaste Eurydice’ – A grimly ironic allusion which takes us back to the very origins of opera, with Jacopo Peri and Monteverdi, Ottavio Rinuccini and Alessandro Striggio.

In general the singing was accomplished. The fact that neither Henze not his excellent librettists (Grete Weil working on the basis of a scenario by Walter Jockisch) do much to invite the development of any of the figures as rounded characters (it seems apt that Henze described the work as a series of seven tableaux) has implications for vocal interpretation, as well as for ‘acting’. We see characters in different (actually not all that different) situations, but we are never invited to see/hear them grow or make real choices. Within the limitations that such considerations establish, Jason Bridges created a very plausible Armand des Grieux, a scholarly young man, trapped by desires he is unable to resist, in a world quite beyond his comprehension. Henze and Weil originally planned to entitle their opera Manon Lescaut. In his autobiography Henze says that the title was changed after “enough people came forward and said that we were mad and asking for trouble in choosing a subject that had already been successfully set by Auber, Massenet and Puccini”. Whether or not that was really the reason for the change, Boulevard Solitude was the better choice. Firstly because Manon is not really the central figure of this opera – Armand is. Text and music alike make more of his situation and anguish than of Manon’s. And the general effect is of a world in which almost every character lives (almost Beckett-like) in his or her own solitude, making occasional desperate and doomed attempts to unite in ‘partnership’ with another.

Sarah Tynan’s Manon was compelling, visually and musically, without ever becoming a plausible human being. But to say that is to point to the nature of the role as written, rather than to make a criticism of Tynan’s performance. She articulated more than a few moments of great beauty in Henze’s writing, without (for the same reasons) being able to invest even these arias with much in the way of emotional or psychological depth. In a work more of ideas than emotions, the Lescaut of Benjamin Bevan and the Monsieur Lilaque of Adrian Thompson are both inevitably somewhat two dimensional, though both acquit themselves well vocally.

There was enough that was memorably visual (and relevant) in this production and hearing Henze’s orchestral score, played and conducted so well, would alone have justified the evening in the theatre. So the season of  ‘Fallen Women’ came to a more successful conclusion than its commencement might, perhaps, have led one to expect.

Glyn Pursglove