If the German composer Hans Werner Henze were to write his opera Boulevard Solitude today, you can guarantee it would be labelled a “gritty reboot” of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. You see, both are adaptations of the same 18th Century French novel, about the trials and tribulations of the eponymous fallen woman, Manon, though musically, and philosophically, they couldn’t be any more different.
The Welsh National Opera have chosen to include both in their triple bill of operas about “Fallen Women” (the season is rounded off with Verdi’s La Traviata), with both productions directed by Mariusz Trelinski and conducted by Lothar Koenigs. Both operas use a very similar, modern backdrop resembling a contemporary Metro station. Both are infused with an often surreal, Technicolor noir vibe, owing a clear visual debt to the movies of David Lynch.
You might think, with both Manon and Boulevard being based on the same material, that this approach would work equally well in both operas, but it does not. As visually impressive as Manon is, with its superbly choreographed chorus of commuters and Bartek Marcias’s ravishing projected cityscapes, this is one instance of modernisation working in conflict with the opera itself. When we first meet Chiara Taigi’s Manon she’s wearing Jackie O sunglasses and a femme fatale red trench coat. So when, within the first few minutes, she announces that she is being sent off to a convent, my first thought was, “Really? In this day and age?”
Gwyn Hughes Jones’s des Grieux also seems to be occupying two very separate worlds simultaneously, described on several occasions as a student – and, what’s more, a theology student – while dressing like a sales rep or bank manager. Indeed, the fact that he’s in this subterranean commuter world, dressing like an office worker, suggests a middle-aged man caught up in Manon’s bewitching spell, not a young student falling hopelessly in love. Manon, meanwhile, sings like an innocent young woman exploited, to varying degrees, by all of the men in her life, but dresses and acts like Sharon Stone in Casino.
The end result, is a little like one of those Hungarian showmen who ride two horses simultaneously, with a foot on each saddle. One horse is a story of erotic abandon, riffing on everything from Blue Velvet to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the other a lush, romantic tragedy. It’s a shame that the battle of style and content causes such discord, because the performances by all of the leads are uniformly excellent, and conductor Koenigs does a splendid job with Puccini’s surprisingly understated score.
Fortunately, the stylistic quirks have calmed down considerably by Acts 3 and 4, or at least feel more in fitting with the subject matter, and the climax – unexpectedly low-key – is particularly effective.
On the face of it, I really shouldn’t have enjoyed Boulevard Solitude more than its stablemate. It’s a mid-20th Century opera, belonging to what I call the “spiky-wikey, plinky plonky” school of vocal arrangement. I believe those in the know call it “twelve tone”, but to my ears it’s that up and done, notes-all-over-the-place noise you get in almost every opera written between World War II and the 1970s. (**PHILISTINE KLAXON**) As a result, I would find it very hard to tell you if the leads, including Sarah Tynan as Manon, Jason Bridges as des Grieux and Benjamin Bevan as Manon’s sleazy brother, did a good job. I think they did, but when the score demands that they sing all over the place, who knows?
That said, Henze’s orchestral score isn’t as brittle or as spikily modern as the likes of Britten and Tippett. There are touches of big band, and the film scores of Bernard Herrmann and Elmer Bernstein, and it’s perhaps this that makes the marriage of style and content so much more successful here than it is in Manon.
If there is perhaps one weakness to Boulevard, it’s that – like Manon – the direction is, in places, a little confusing. Now, sometimes this is played to great effect. In Boulevard, when Trelinski uses Henze’s intermezzi to bring us back repeatedly to the scene of the crime, it turns the whole opera into a kind of palindromic nightmare, but when he has Adrian Thompson’s Lilaque Pere collapse halfway through, I thought he’d died, making his character’s return later on more than a little baffling. Overall, though, the surreal and expressionistic touches work well. The trio of pig-masked men in dressing gowns – a slightly on-the-nose symbol for chauvinism – were sphincter-clenchingly unsettling.
Having seen both shows, it feels as if perhaps director Trelinski had his heart set on a Lynch/Hitchcock-infused version of Boulevard (with nods, especially in the opening scenes, to Martin Scorsese), one that was thematically consistent, and then tried to weld that particularly interpretation back onto Puccini’s “original” (there were other adaptations before his, but Puccini’s is the best-known of them). While this isn’t particularly successful, the two shows watched in close succession make for a very interesting double bill, touching on such timeless themes as erotic abandon and the sexual exploitation of women.