Saturday 15 March 2014

Boulevard Solitude, Welsh National Opera, 13 March 2014

(sung in English)

Milton Keynes Theatre

Armand des Grieux – Jason Bridges
Manon Lescaut – Sarah Tynan
Lescaut – Benjamin Bevan
Lilaque père – Adrian Thompson
Francis – Alastair Moore
Lilaque fils – Laurence Cole
Mr Man – Tomasz Wygoda

Mariusz Treliński (director)
Boris Kudlicka (set designs)
Marek Adamski (costumes)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Bartek Macias (video)
Tomasz Wygoda (choreography)

Welsh National Opera Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Harris)
Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Lothar Koenigs (conductor)

As I took the unlovely walk towards the theatre from the railway station, up Midsummer Boulevard, I began to wonder whether I was the victim of a hoax. Was the claim that the Welsh National Opera would be staging Boulevard Solitude in Milton Keynes simply a way of sending up the absurd pretension of the street-naming in this most notorious of England’s ‘new towns’? Whatever would I find when my long march came to an end? The answer proved to be: a first-rate performance of Henze’s first full-scale opera, in a rather impressive, small but not too small, municipal theatre, boasting friendlier staff than I can recall encountering in any opera house, large or small.

Indeed, though I have not seen so very many of WNO’s productions, this was undoubtedly the finest in my experience. A few frayed moments aside, the orchestra showed itself well matched to Henze’s protean, eclectic idiom(s), Lothar Koenigs’s direction equally adept. Each scene was well characterised, whilst a sense of onward progression was maintained throughout. Whether the echoes of Lulu – near-plagiarism or tribute, according to inclination? – or the strains of Stan Kenton-like jazz, each style had its due in a performance that winningly conveyed the sheer exuberance of Henze’s youthful explorations.  After the Hanover premiere in 1952, a journalist compared Henze with Judas Iscariot; 500 marks had allegedly been the price for betrayal of German art. Here one heard renewal, not afraid, Stravinsky-like, to use rather than venerate tradition, yet in that use nevertheless manifesting a truer respect than the pieties of misplaced nationalism. Already, moreover, one hears –and in performance, heard – the unwillingness of the composer to settle for serialist orthodoxies, twelve-note writing not only interspersed with frank diatonicism, whether parodic or relatively unmediated, but also, Berg-like, dramatising its own working out. The dramatic contrast between Schoenberg and Stravinsky expressed in, say, Der Prinz von Homburg sounds, if anything, more adventurously, certainly more freshly here.  

Mariusz Treliński’s production works impressively in tandem with score and performance. The chic emptiness of Boris Kudlicka’s sets, occasionally visited by cinematic flashes  and clashes, not least thanks to Felice Ross’s skilful lighting, convincingly evokes the mood of background and foreground and the dubious ‘modern’ atmospheres of railway station and hotel bar comings and goings, permitting the central tragedy to speak for itself, growing out of that setting. One can perhaps make too much of the filmic quality, whether of work or staging, since this remains very much a theatre piece, but it was certainly present. Indeed, as Henze would write in his autobiography, Bohemian Fifths, this ‘was a subject that had suggested itself to me … [partly] as a result of Henri-Georges-Clouzot’s recent film, which was set at the time of the French Resistance and starred Cécile Aubry’. I wondered to start with whether Treliński was focusing too much on Manon and not enough on Armand, but then reconsidered: to an extent, that is what Henze does himself, allowing Armand to emerge from the depths of the story’s pre-history as anti-hero rather than being imposed upon it from the outset.  

The cast was excellent. Jason Bridges portrayed movingly and sensitively the descent of Armand into seasonal and metaphorical winter. Well supported by Koenigs and Treliński, the sudden rush as Armand did his first line of cocaine packed quite a punch; so too did the plaintive moments in which Bridges had him rise above mere self-pity. Sarah Tynan made for an excellent Manon, those Lulu echoes ever-present and yet not overpowering; this was not simply a tribute act, but a woman with at least a degree of agency of her own, even vis-à-vis Benjamin Bevan’s suitably thuggish Lescaut. The rest of the cast did far more than make up the numbers, the Lilaques (Adrian Thompson and Laurence Cole) nicely contrasted yet sharing the benefits of financial and social privilege, both spoken and unspoken. Alastair Moore offered an intelligently sung and acted Francis.

The British premiere took place at Sadler’s Wells, in 1962; I therefore assume that would have been given in English too. After a minute or two, I more or less forgot that I ‘should’ have been hearing the work in Grete Weil’s original German, such was the conviction of the performance. Three cheers, then, for WNO!