Hans Werner Henze
Libretto by Grete Weil
Scenario by Walter Jockisch after Abbé Prévosts novel, Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut
Armand des Grieux: Pär Lindskog
Manon Lescaut: Alexandra von der Wath
Lescaut: Wolfgang Rauch
Lilaque père: Chris Merritt
Francis: Quentin Hayes
Lilaque fils: Graham Broadbent
Jean: Basil Patton (non-singing role)
Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Bernhard Kontarsky
Design: Tobias Hoheisel
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Movement: Denni Sayers
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 20 March, 2001
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
49 years and 31 days after its Hanover première (17 February 1952) Henze’s first opera received due recognition from the Royal Opera House. Not that Henze had been ignored by the House in the past. The Royal Ballet had commissioned his early ballet score Undine (fp 1958) and the Royal Opera followed suit in 1976 with the commission of We Come to the River. But, Henze has now written over twenty works which could be termed operatic, and is working on his latest – L’Upupa oder der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (The Hoopoe – or the Triumph of a Son’s Love), based on an Arabic tale – for the 2003 Salzburg Festival. Britain has heard relatively few of these. As part of the BBC Henze festival in January 1991 (celebrating his 65th birthday) the Guildhall produced The English Cat. When Sir Simon Rattle got to the 1960s in his Towards the Millennium series, the London Sinfonietta, under Markus Stenz, chipped in with a concert performance of Elegy for Young Lovers, and in 1996 ENO gave us The Prince of Homburg. So, especially in Henze’s 75th birthday year, perhaps more could have been done to rectify the balance, and it must be regretted that a concert performance of The Bassarids, at one time scheduled by the Philharmonia and Christoph von Dohnànyi, did not come to fruition.
However, there can be no complaints that Henze has been badly served by the Royal Opera in this production. Obviously securing the involvement of Nikolaus Lehnhoff was a key factor in guaranteeing (as much as you can these days) a production that would treat the work seriously. Lehnhoff has proved, in his mesmerising Janáček productions for Glyndebourne as well as his Palestrina for the House (recently revived), that he can marshal both his creative team and cast to the benefit of the composer’s wishes. Like The Makropulos Case, Boulevard Solitude had a striking set, which, in essence, remains static, while individual scenes are slowly slid into place. In the Janáček the main action, from lawyer’s office to Emilia Marty’s room, was performed on a barely perceptible, constantly moving stage, reinforcing the seamlessness of Janáček’s music. Henze too has written a seamless score, with six interludes bridging the seven scenes, and here Lehnhoff uses three layers of scenery that can slowly slide across the stage from the left-hand side to change the focus. Each of these include a painting projected subtly, which act as a background for the action: the first is Edward Hopper’s ’Hotel Room’ in Scene 2; the second, Felice Casorati’s ’Conversatione platonica’ and, finally (Scene 6), Cagnaccio di San Pietro’s ’Dopo l’orgia’.
Another master-stroke in Lehnhoff’s production is the constant, but silent, addition of people, setting the tragic story of Manon – her manipulative brother, her various rich lovers (by which both she and Lescaut can, cuckoo-like, pursue a parasitical lifestyle) and her love for the student Armand des Grieux – in context. The opera starts at a French railway station. With Prévost’s story updated to post-war times, there is a feeling of a world attempting to get back to normality, although there are still GIs around among the plethora of comings-and-goings of ordinary people. Henze’s percussive ticking, with which the score opens, often breaks down into general pauses, and here all the movement stops, apart from the main characters. Thus the entry of Lescaut and his sister achieves greater impact, with Armand – the real focus of Henze’s opera – centre-stage front, sad and lonely, sitting on his trunk before going back to studies in Paris. The railway station is evoked with gold-handled glass swing-doors at the back; on the right a massive staircase (38 stairs, indeed, from under which a well-stocked and stylish bar can appear) and three imposing columns on the left, which are the leading edge of the scene-changing mechanism referred to above.
Manon catches Armand’s eyes and, in the heat of the moment, eschews the finishing school to which her brother is intent of taking her, and goes off with the young student. But Lescaut catches up with her and persuades her that a penniless student will not be able to keep her, but he knows a rich old man who has money enough for both of them. Eventually, she leaves Lilaque (Chris Merritt, looking dapper) to go back to Armand, but Lescaut inveigles her with Lilaque’s son to get her back into his clutches. Armand takes to drugs, but Manon takes pity on him and invites him back to her sugar daddy’s house when Lilaque fils is away. Lescaut, petty thief that he is, also takes the opportunity to steal a famous painting, but the alarm has been raised by the valet Jean and Lilaque père enters to find Manon. He wants to start where they left off, but soon discovers the theft and Lescaut thrusts a gun into Manon’s hand and when it goes off, Lilaque père lies dead. The final scene, sees Armand waiting to see Manon one last time after the trial. He toys with a gun, but whether the opera ends with a suicide or not, you will have to see for yourself . . .
Lehnhoff, following Henze and Weil’s example, returns to the seediness of Prèvost’s original story (much sanitised in both Massenet’s and Puccini’s versions), and enhances it by contrasting it with the beautiful surroundings. The Lilaque family’s wealth is only a front; their only relationships are bought, and thus are ultimately both gratuitous and cosmetic. Lescaut is totally emotionless and self-centred; only Armand loves Manon for what she is, with no commercial exchange expected. Henze accompanies this with an often ravishingly beautiful score, here eloquently sung by an exemplary cast, with four house debutantes that one hopes Covent Garden has already signed up not only for a revival but for other roles as well. Bernhard Kontarsky is the exemplary conductor.
Much has been made in the press of Covent Garden finding it difficult to sell the tickets for this production. Raymond Gubbay is probably right that for an ’unknown’ work (and contemporary), £115 is way-too much to charge, and a BBC-style policy of a single price (£25 or £30 perhaps – with amphitheatre cheaper still) would have made it more appealing. Yet the first two nights have been full, so the shock reporting may well have done the trick and created a cult phenomenon. No-one will be disappointed and with four performances left, the advice is clear: get down to your nearest opera house for a tremendous 90 minutes of opera at its best.
Although Henze is a ’contemporary’ composer, his first opera was written half-a-century ago, only seven years after Britten’s spectacular entry onto the operatic stage with Peter Grimes and eight years before Martinu’s The Greek Passion (Covent Garden’s Olivier Award-winning production this time last year). There are no scare-stories about these being hard to sell – so who is to blame in Boulevard Solitude’s case: public ignorance or press ignorance and prejudice?