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Boulevard Solitude, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Boulevard Solitude, Welsh National Opera

Boulevard Solitude, Welsh National Opera

Henze's take on Prévost exponentially improves on WNO's latest Puccini

Immaculate control: Sarah Tynan as Manon LescautJohan Persson

Reviewing WNO’s Manon Lescaut a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that its director, Mariusz Treliński, had devised the production in terms of Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, “and simply tyre-levered the Puccini into it.” QED. Here are the same railway station, the same trains flashing by, the same barman, the same slinky, raincoated – or less – Manons (plural), the same general air of transient sleaze. Boris Kudlička’s designs have changed in detail but not in essence. The one essential difference is that, whereas the idiom was completely unsuited to and effectively shipwrecked Puccini’s version of Prévost’s novel, it fits Henze’s setting like a glove. This show, in a word, is as intriguing as the other was vacuous and dysfunctional.

But the main news is Henze’s opera itself. It was his first, composed in the early Fifties in the shadow of post-war Berlin, a time of aimless wandering through still half-ruined streets, and the frenetic search for one or another kind of oblivion. Grete Weil’s libretto filters out the charm of Prévost’s Amiens, and hurries on to a Zola-esque world of high-class whores, loveless sex, drugs, alcohol and murder. It might seem an unpromising – or too promising – mix for an opera. But somehow Henze breathes musical life into it, and without the tendency to droop and drift that came to typify his music after he moved from Germany to Ischia in 1953.

There is a flow of ideas that never seems in danger of drying up yet never gets overloaded.

Like all German composers after the war, Henze was assailed with influences that had been inaccessible under the Nazis, and it took him a while to sort them out. In his early works Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Hindemith often do battle. But in Boulevard Solitude they’re absorbed into a style that, for want of any better term, one has to call Henzean. Traces of Stravinsky there still are, alongside a kind of post-Bergian lyricism that lies well on the voice; fragments of jazz fly past, Rigoletto is quoted. But beyond all these memories is an individual sensibility that is both modern and approachable, intense yet vibrantly warm and direct.

Things that stick in the mind: astonishingly delicate writing for a large percussion section, including a highly original overture that perfectly pre-echoes the uneasy, provisional, somewhat unreal encounter of Manon and des Grieux in the railway station; wonderfully refined woodwind polyphonies and richly coloured string textures; a flow of ideas that never seems in danger of drying up yet never gets overloaded.

An unexpected feature of the score is its transparency. Henze had learnt from Stravinsky how to economise in terms of sound, and he understood the importance of interior movement. This is in the best sense body music, full of rhythmic impulse even when slow moving – something that German composers before Henze often found elusive. And it’s this fastidious physicality that maps so well on to a libretto which makes no bones about the sexuality and venality that destroy its heroine in the end. Lothar Koenigs paces it all marvellously, and the orchestral playing is near enough flawless.

Treliński predictably makes the most of the physicality. With him movement is a motif, obviously to some extent inspired, like the opera itself, by film: at the start, slow motion (à la Robbe-Grillet) offset by the normal movement of Jason Bridges’ well-drawn des Grieux – the one human being on stage, and the real emotional focus of the opera. Also circling repetition: Lilaque (Henze’s Geronte figure – the elderly lover) murdered twice, Manon – or her double – arrested at the start as well as the finish. In the surreal environment of Henze’s one-acter these devices work well, where they made nonsense of Puccini; and they go with the music. Some may find Treliński’s voyeurism – his toying with the female body – offensive. But it’s hardly out of place in Boulevard Solitude: disturbing no doubt, inappropriate hardly. His obscurities of locale are more bothersome (there are no scene changes, though Henze’s shifts are important). Read the synopsis before curtain-up.

The performance is superb down to the smallest role. Bridges, a bookish student in jacket and jersey, sings a nicely focused and eloquent des Grieux, and Sarah Tynan preserves immaculate control while being variously displayed and pawed at by assorted pig-masked sugar-daddies. Benjamin Bevan pulls no punches as Lescaut, an unredeemed villain compared to Puccini’s wastrel; Adrian Thompson (pictured above with Sarah Tynan) is still in fine voice, if a shade too likeable, as Lilaque. Treliński is for some reason obsessed with cleaners: in Manon Lescaut it was the student Edmondo, here des Grieux’s friend Francis (the same character, presumably). Alastair Moore makes an impact vocally, and wields a mean brush and pan. Treliński’s characters may be dirty, but at least his stations are clean. And Henze’s opera is a real find.

Grete Weil's libretto hurries on to a Zola-esque world of high-class whores, loveless sex, drugs, alcohol and murder

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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It's obviously a different opera in WNO's hands from the one that was staged at the Royal Opera, which I found grey and opaque. Wondered why, given that attempt, WNO didn't go for something better like Der junge Milord or The Bassarids, both of which are due for revival, but your approval vindicates their choice. In this instance Trelinski doesn't need to face odious comparisons.

I must agree wholeheartedly with your take on this production: I found the production of Manon Lescaut bizarre and seriously at odds with the music. But Boulevard Solitude for me was a theatrical and musical tour-de-force. The staging and direction was really a match for the music, which I had never heard before, but which I found electrifying, intense and exciting. But I thought Sarah Tynan was magnificent. She really carried the show, not only terrific singing, technically brilliant, but superb acting as well. Very well-cast for the part. And Jason Bridges was excellent too, lovely tone to his voice, and a good foil for Tynan.

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