Boulevard Solitude, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, February 2014Posted on 27 February 2014
The working title for this opera, when Henze started work on it in 1950, was Manon Lescaut, heavily influenced as it was by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1949 movie Manon set in wartime Paris. Both are ultimately based on the Abbé Prevost’s eighteenth century novella, and the WNO staging is by the same director and stage designer, Mariusz Treliński and Boris Kudlička, who created the Company’s production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Set in post-War Paris, with excellent costume designs by Marek Adamski, Manon is an extremely sexy, tough and ruthless young woman, beautifully portrayed by Sarah Tynan.
Her wonderful singing and seductiveness served the role to perfection, and Jason Bridges as her impecunious lover, Armand Des Grieux, sang with fine tone as a weak man victimised by a world he doesn’t fully grasp. That world includes Manon’s amoral brother Lescaut, well portrayed by Benjamin Bevan, and Monsieur Lalique, very strongly sung by Adrian Thompson.
The Laliques, a father and son who both have relationships with Manon, come from an opulent world far removed from that of the others, and Lescaut refers to Lalique Senior as a pig. In this production three versions of Lalique appear, in dressing gowns with pig heads, as do three versions of Manon, dressed like her in black stockings and suspenders, and occasionally a skirt with a zipped slit. But if you expect delectable coquettishness, be warned that this Manon is on the slope of depravity, and like the eponymous character in Lulu, an opera the WNO put on this time last year, she shoots her patron dead. Sarah Tynan handles a gun, shots are fired off-stage, and Adrian Thompson collapses with blood oozing from a chest wound. This is something of a coup de theatre, and its suddenness contrasts well with the slow motion movements of uniformed officials, which give a sinister, threatening aspect to the opera.
But then it emerged from a threatening world, and Henze’s librettist Grete Weil, who had moved from Germany to Amsterdam in 1935, had to go into hiding when the Nazis occupied Holland. She survived, though here first husband did not, and this opera emerged from a collaboration between her, Henze, and her second husband Walter Jokisch, an eminent man of the theatre.
The atmospheric though somewhat static music, very well conducted by Lothar Koenigs, reflects Henze’s disengagement from a world he found unsympathetic, and it is perhaps no surprise that Frederick Ashton commissioned him to write the score for his full length ballet Ondine, where a water nymph enchants a human, leading eventually to his death. Like that ballet, which contained one of Margot Fonteyn’s favourite roles, this one-act opera in seven tableaux has never become part of the mainstream, but this staging gives a fascinating insight into one of the most popular works among Henze’s vast output.
A further performance at the Cardiff Millennium Centre takes place on Feb 28, after which it tours to: Birmingham Hippodrome, 6 Mar; Milton Keynes Theatre, 13 Mar; Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 20 Mar; Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 27 Mar; Venue Cymru, Llandudno 3 Apr. For details click here.