Opera’s grim fascination with ‘fallen women’ — as Welsh National Opera has called its latest mini-season — lies largely in the spectacle of the fall itself. But in Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, the composer’s 1952 operatic debut, the heroine — a tart denied even a heart — starts off near the bottom; her fall is less precipitous than those in the other two operas the company has chosen for its theme, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Verdi’s La traviata.
Like Puccini’s opera (and Massenet’s Manon), Henze’s is based on an 18th-century novel by the Abbé Prévost. But it updates the action to shortly after the second world war: the warm melodies and decorous opéra-comique niceties of those earlier adaptations are but memories among the rubble. Boulevard Solitude, though, is appealing precisely in its willingness to show how basically unappealing the character of Manon is, how fundamentally undramatic her inevitable undoing (largely brought about through decisions made for her by others) is.
The dubious moral in Prévost’s story seems less to be that women should keep themselves out of trouble than that men should fulfil their role in protecting them — something with which Germont père in La traviata would surely agree. But there’s no room for that moral, or any morals, in the world of Boulevard Solitude, sordid and dehumanised from the start. Manon is picked up at a railway station on her way to a Swiss finishing school (a tellingly materialist equivalent of Prévost’s convent) and thrust quickly from a joyless relationship with Armand into an even worse arrangement with the old, rich Monsieur Lilaque, whom, in this production, she ends up shooting.
For this new staging, Mariusz Trelinski has used the same single set (by Boris Kudlicka) as he did for his Manon Lescaut. Its two main sections cleverly evoke multiple spaces, mixing a sort of office and boudoir on the left, a sort of nightclub and station waiting-room on the right. It’s all achingly trendy and appropriately, depressingly soulless, and certainly seems a better fit than it was, by all accounts, for Puccini’s opera.
But the director is not content to let the action unfold by itself, opting for a kind of narrative crisscrossing à la David Lynch, with the action interleaved with fragments of flashback. It’s very cleverly executed, and complemented by some stylish and imaginative surreal touches. But it complicates a plot that, after all, is less murder mystery than straightforward murder. It also puts undue emphasis on this final deed in an opera whose main focus is the smitten Armand, his pained obsession with Manon and descent into drug-addled desperation.
Perhaps this might have been less noticeable had Jason Bridges managed greater intensity as Armand: although he sang the part’s angular lines very well, he never really communicated the necessary hopeless desperation. Sarah Tynan’s Manon, by contrast, was just right: fiercely sexy and dangerous in a hauntingly dead-eyed way, and coldly beautiful of voice. Adrian Thompson’s Monsieur Lilaque was a little strained, perhaps, but wonderfully sleazy. Benjamin Bevan did a good job as the least appealing of the lot, Manon’s pimping brother.
The rest of the cast, including a trio of jerkily dancing ladies in their underwear, did the whole thing proud, and the words of Norman Platt’s translation came across pretty well. The orchestra sounded fabulous, and Lothar Koenigs brought out all the unnerving, cool beauty of Henze’s score, a mix of empty jazz and searing atonality that is no less effective for being so obviously influenced by the operas of Alban Berg.
Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment might seem little more than harmless fluff by comparison, especially so in Laurent Pelly’s unrelentingly comic Royal Opera staging, revived to coincide with Kiri Te Kanawa’s 70th birthday. The New Zealand soprano was La Duchesse de Crackentorp, a speaking role traditionally given over to retired divas but previously taken here by Dawn French and Ann Widdecombe; objectively speaking she wasn’t much better or worse than either, and she sang for us (an aria from Puccini’s Edgar), which her predecessors thankfully hadn’t done.
There were greater concerns elsewhere on the first night: Patrizia Ciofi (Marie) was still suffering from an all-too-audible throat infection, and the orchestra under Yves Abel’s erratic direction had some distressingly ragged moments. But Ewa Podles’s fruity-voiced Marquise de Berkenfeld was difficult to resist, and she provided some genuine laughs with Pietro Spagnoli’s Sulpice. There was Juan Diego Flórez, too, who sounded a little tight-voiced and short of breath. But he hit his top Cs reliably in Tonio’s notorious first aria, and was meltingly lyrical in his vastly superior second one, one of the few moments where the production allows the lyricism and pathos of Donizetti’s music to shine through.
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