Magazine article The Spectator

Moral Vacuum

Magazine article The Spectator

Moral Vacuum

Article excerpt

Boulevard Solitude Welsh National Opera, on tour until 3 April La Fille du regiment Royal Opera House, in rep until 18 March

Opera's grim fascination with 'fallen women' - as Welsh National Opera has called its latest mini-season - lies largely in the spectacle of the fall itself. But in Hans Werner Henze's Boulevard Solitude, the composer's 1952 operatic debut, the heroine - a tart denied even a heart - starts off near the bottom; her fall is less precipitous than those in the other two operas the company has chosen for its theme, Puccini's Manon Lescaut and Verdi's La traviata.

Like Puccini's opera (and Massenet's Manon), Henze's is based on an 18th-century novel by the Abbe Prevost. But it updates the action to shortly after the second world war: the warm melodies and decorous operacomique niceties of those earlier adaptations are but memories among the rubble.

Boulevard Solitude, though, is appealing precisely in its willingness to show how basically unappealing the character of Manon is, how fundamentally undramatic her inevitable undoing (largely brought about through decisions made for her by others) is.

The dubious moral in Prevost's story seems less to be that women should keep themselves out of trouble than that men should fulfil their role in protecting them - something with which Germont pere in La traviata would surely agree. But there's no room for that moral, or any morals, in the world of Boulevard Solitude, sordid and dehumanised from the start. Manon is picked up at a railway station on her way to a Swiss finishing school (a tellingly materialist equivalent of Prevost's convent) and thrust quickly from a joyless relationship with Armand into an even worse arrangement with the old, rich Monsieur Lilaque, whom, in this production, she ends up shooting.

For this new staging, Mariusz Trelinski has used the same single set (by Boris Kudlicka) as he did for his Manon Lescaut. Its two main sections cleverly evoke multiple spaces, mixing a sort of office and boudoir on the left, a sort of nightclub and station waiting-room on the right. It's all achingly trendy and appropriately, depressingly soulless, and certainly seems a better fit than it was, by all accounts, for Puccini's opera.

But the director is not content to let the action unfold by itself, opting for a kind of narrative crisscrossing a la David Lynch, with the action interleaved with fragments of flashback. It's very cleverly executed, and complemented by some stylish and imaginative surreal touches. …

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