Sunday 2 March 2014

Fallen women: Boulevard Solitude

Jason Bridges and Sarah Tynan in Henze's Boulevard Solitude: WNO at the Wales Millennium Centre: Photo credit: Johan Persson
Jason Bridges & Sarah Tynan
Photo credit: Johan Persson
Hans Werner Henze Boulevard Solitude:Welsh National Opera : Wales Millennium Centre
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 9 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Henze's re-working of the Manon story, in a production linking to Puccini's Manon Lescaut, also in WNO's Fallen Women season

The final instalment of the Fallen Women series at the WNO brought us back to Manon Lescaut with Boulevard Solitude by Hanz Werner Henze (1926-2012). Directed by Mariusz Trelinski this version of Manon’s life contained a different slant to the story by Abbé Prévost than Manon Lescaut by Puccini. Sarah Tynan sang Manon, with Jason Bridges, Benjamin Bevan and Adrian Thompson, conducted by Lothar Koenigs.

Manon has an affair with a young student (Armand des Grieux) that she meets at a railway station. But his poverty means that he cannot keep her in the style she would prefer, so she leaves him to return to a life as a courtesan and prostitute.

In Boulevard, Manon was less passive than in Puccini’s version - taking an active choice about her life as a prostitute and seemingly just stringing Armand des Grieux along. Conversely she was more compliant to her pimp and drug dealer brother. In Puccini’s story Manon’s inability to leave her treasures behind gives her ‘protector’ (di Ravoir/Lilaque Pere) the chance to have her arrested and thrown in prison. However in Boulevard, her brother was shown to be the thief, although they were both accused of stealing. Her downfall was much more violent – in Boulevard Manon kills Lilaque Pere and was caught with the gun in her hand. Manon and des Grieux did not meet again, rather des Grieux was alone with his loss and loneliness.

Mariusz Trelinski maintained parallels with Manon Lescaut by keeping lots of the same stylistic elements. The train station of Manon Lescaut with its neon exit signs was expanded into a railway bar and hotel, and the action all happened within the same minimalistic set. In both operas the same commuters rushed around with the same stylised movements (they were joined by slow motion policemen in Boulevard). The main characters wear similar clothes, and des Grieux‘s friend was portrayed as a cleaner in both. Additionally the prison Manon was taken to was reminiscent of the women’s mental hospital/prison in Manon Lescaut with the same tortured walking and torn costumes.

Themes of time and Manon’s fractured personality were re-explored in Trelinski’s version of Boulevard. Although the big clock was missing there were inserts of flash-forward. At the very start we saw the police at a crime scene and Manon being taken away in handcuffs. Each time this recurred a little more was seen until the part in the opera when Manon killed Lilaque Pere and we realised what these episodes had been leading to.

For both versions of the Manon story there was often more than one Manon on stage (there were also three Lilaque Peres in pig masks). In Manon Lescaut these are all facets of her unravelling personality, in Boulevard they are all at different stages of her life, allowing the audience to view different aspects simultaneously.

Sarah Tynan in Henze's Boulevard Solitude, WNO at the Wales Millennium Centre: Photo credit: Johan Persson
Sarah Tynan
Photo credit: Johan Persson
German born Henze was influenced by the avant-garde composers at Darmstadt and early in his compositional life experimented with serialism and twelve tone techniques. In 1948 he had his first opera performed and Boulevard Solitude was composed in 1950/1 prior to his move to Italy. This one and a half hour opera (with no breaks) conducted by Lothar Koenigs showcased a mixture of techniques, repeated serial lines replaced melody, and the accompaniment was rhythm led. However there were also strong elements of neoclassicism and jazz which provided a tangible framework for the libretto to sit in.

Sung in English the surtitles were superfluous. Sarah Tynan’s clear voice brought a sophistication to her role while maintaining a vestige of vulnerability. Jason Bridges was an emotionally confused Armand des Grieux and Benjamin Bevan as Lescaut was a nasty brute of a man. These main, not so nice, protagonists were the central pivot which ensured the success of the opera. Lilaque Pere played by Adrian Thompson and his son Young Lilaque (Laurence Cole who has been in all three operas) along with the student/cleaner Alastair Moore might not have had much singing to do but were on stage a lot of the time and were essential to Trelinski’s vision as were the silent actors.

So what is the result of this exploration into the motives of fallen women? Are they victims of society or have they chosen an alternative path for a successful and pleasant life? Of the three fallen women in the series only Violetta is redeemed (and she dies!). Another question could ask, “Well what about the men?” In all three operas the lovers also fall. Alfredo and des Grieux (Boulevard) survive but des Grieux (Manon) is equally destroyed by the affair. Lescaut, especially in Boulevard, has morally fallen, but is impervious to the retribution life has heaped on his sister. Only Alfredo’s father has a moment of realisation and ascends – but at what cost? His actions destroyed the woman his son loved and the only selfless person he knew.

Boulevard Solitude is playing across the country until the 3rd April.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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