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Like most people who had personal contact with Hans Werner Henze, Welsh National Opera’s artistic director David Pountney feels a loyalty to his memory – manifested in this courageous new production of Boulevard Solitude. But the desire to keep the German composer’s flag flying is not based on sentiment alone. Henze’s first fully fledged opera, written in 1951 when he was 25, happens to be one of the most performable in the modern canon – as Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2001 Covent Garden staging made clear to those of us lucky enough to catch it (or see the DVD, filmed in Barcelona).
Boulevard Solitude is Henze’s updated retelling of the Manon Lescaut story, so it was a clever idea of Pountney’s not only to pair it with the Puccini opera in WNO’s “Fallen Women” season, but also to use the same production team and decor. Responding to the score’s atmospheric mix of modernism and Mediterranean lyricism, Mariusz Trelinski and his designers Boris Kudlicka (sets), Marek Adamski (costumes) and Felice Ross (lighting) create a more consistent and convincing milieu for Henze than for Puccini. The shadowy environment of a station concourse, with initial overtones of Eurostar and smoochy gauloiserie, metamorphoses seamlessly into hotel bar and domestic salon, the latter containing murky hints of sexual depravity and degradation. Each scene is contoured and coloured in a way that makes sense of the music – outstandingly so in the interludes and in Armand’s hallucinatory drug-taking scene.
It is Armand’s lovesick loneliness – the ache of romantic “solitude” from which Henze suffered in postwar Paris – that becomes the production’s leitmotif, determined partly by the orchestra’s mastery of a heterogeneous score under the hugely esteemed Lothar Koenigs, but also by Jason Bridges’ louchely sympathetic impersonation.
All other characters are archetypes – which in no way detracts from the elusive power of Sarah Tynan’s slim, chic, lingerie-clad Manon, one of the best things she has done. She and Bridges establish an essential sexual chemistry, while also suggesting that Manon is a Lulu-like figment of Armand’s imagination. Adrian Thompson is perfectly cast as the sugar daddy, and Benjamin Bevan makes a bluff Lescaut. Despite a few inbuilt longueurs, the entire enterprise, sung in English, is a deserved triumph for WNO.