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L'éternel retour

Royal Opera House
03/20/2001 -  and 23, 26, 29 March, 2,4 April
Hans Werner Henze: Boulevard Solitude
Pär Lindskog (Armand des Grieux), Alexandra von der Weth (Manon Lescaut), Wolfgang Rauch (Lescaut), Chris Merritt (Lilaque père), Quentin Hayes (Francis), Graeme Broadbent (Lilaque fils)

Bernard Kontarsky (conductor), Nikolaus Lehnhoff (director)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus

Hans Werner Henze’s first opera, Boulevard Solitude, was written in 1951 while he was still living in Germany. Based on the same source as Massenet’s Manon and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, it repatriates the Bildung theme of the Abbeé Prévost’s novel and updates it to the immediate post-war world of transience, railway stations and austere style. Henze and his librettist Grete Weil were inspired by Clouzot’s film Manon, set during the war, and to all appearances by a range of other movies: Cocteau’s Orphée (another bourgeois update of an archetype), Sunset Boulevard (the title as well as the noir ambience) and Brief encounter (beginning and ending at a railway station). Operatically, it is Lulu’s little sister, with twelve-tone sequences, a father and son involved in a farcical scene, a painting, and, above all, a bruised soprano. But it’s pared down musically, with extended percussion-only sections and bare orchestrations of stark musical lines, perhaps closest to Eisler in his depressive mode. It’s interesting rather than exciting, elegiac rather than passionate and well made rather than brilliant.

Boulevard Solitude is certainly not typical Royal Opera fare. Even in a generally thin season of revivals, its obscurity has meant that ticket sales have been slow, and the house was well papered for the first performance. (The publicity about freebies for B-list celebrities probably didn’t inspire many people to dash out and buy tickets.) Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production, and, particularly, Tobias Hoheisel’s columned railway-station set, exude class and style, however, and the production has a similar appeal to Lehnhoff’s Palestrina, with the added attraction of lasting a film-noirish eighty five minutes.

The whole experience is at worst painless and often enjoyable. The humour, always oblique, is decidedly understated in this production, but it’s still there, in the chorus of students intoning Catullus in the library (which replaces St Sulpice) and in the hiding behind columns and flight for the back stairs when Lilaque pére comes to visit his son and interrupts Manon and Armand. The ballet-like circulation of the crowd in the persistent station during the intermezzos is fascinatingly detailed. (There’s a blind man who is always about to collide with a different bit of moving set, and a woman in a tailored suit who looks at her watch and dashes up the stairs every couple of minutes.) The seven scenes sketch out the plot, but the characters seem exposed in the space of the set when the crowd is gone, and their actions are almost as automatic, though the music often suggests alienated pain rather than numbness.

Alexandra von der Weth’s performance as Manon alone makes the whole thing worth seeing. Tall and stylish, she turns in an intense operatic star performance in a fully modern style, perfect for both the period and the music. Pär Lindskog’s forceful Armand is a bit of a rough diamond, a bit bumptious and plausibly a snowball (Lescaut is a dealer in this version). The rest of the ensemble are cast for character, reasonably enough. Wolfgang Rauch is a slimy Lescaut, Chris Merritt amusingly smug and mannered, if vocally ragged, as Lilaque pére, and Graeme Broadbent smooth and hard as Lilaque fils. The orchestra under Bernard Kontarsky was controlled and wonderfully idiomatic.

H.E. Elsom



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