A stark drama without soul

Lovers passing like trains in the night: Sara Tynan as Manon Lescaut and Jason Bridges as the lustfully eager student Armand des Grieux. Pictures: Johan Persson

Boulevard Solitude

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

***

CALL me old fashioned, all right, old as well, but I do like my opera with tunes, arias to touch the soul, duets or ensemble pieces to amuse or amaze, to add drama or lift the spirit, in short something to hum happily to yourself on the journey home.

Opera has the ability to bring goose bumps to the emotions – hence the popularity of Nessun dorma. It will forever be associated with Italia 90.

Most football fans probably cannot tell you it is from Turandot, or even from an opera, let alone that it was composed by Puccini, but that detracts nothing from the power and beauty of an aria which is better known than the Italia 90 winners (West Germany if you were wondering).

Boulevard Soitude might have the drama, stark and raw, but it has no Nessun dorma moments. It is is German composer Hans Werner Henze’s first full blown opera, written in 1951 and is based on the Manon Lescaut story and WNO artistic director David Poutney, who worked with Henze as his assistant, has cleverly added this modern opera to the WNO’s Fallen Women Series of La traviata and Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s take on the same Manon story and his first operatic success.

To further link the two versions they share the same director, Mariusz Trelinski, set designer Boris Kudlick, and indeed setting in a French station and both are lit by Felice Ross.

But this is perhaps one more for the purists rather than the romantics. The singing is excellent, the musicianshipSara Tynan sings beautifully and exudes sex appeal as the troubled Manon Lescaut of the WNO orchestra under conductor Lotha Koenigs is, as always exemplary, but somehow there is no involvement, no passion, no lyrical or dramatic passages to sweep you along. You are like the witness to a car crash, and perhaps that is what is intended.

Perhaps we are not supposed to become involved in the cold, clinical tale of a student,  Armand des Grieux, sung with real angst and conviction by tenor Jason Bridges, who falls for Manon, a high class mistress, a modern day courtesan at the posh end of prostitution, who seems to have some feeling for him.

Sara Tynan sings beautifully and exudes sex appeal as the troubled Manon Lescaut

She could have been our tragic heroine but although you might lust after her, especially in the shape of skimpily dressed soprano Sara Tynan, whose costume seems to have been inspired by Ann Summers, her character asks no questions of the less base emotions.

She sings the part well and manages to convey her empty life of selling sex for a living with a clear soprano voice that seems devoid of hope – indeed hope is missing throughout the whole 90 minute one act opera.

Manon’s pimp is her brother Lescaut, a believable performance from the leather jacketed brooding baritone Benjamin Bevan, and there is good support from tenor Adrian Thompson as the rich old man who keeps Manon as his mistress until her indiscretions, or those of her brother to be more accurate, see her thrown out but old men can only throw so far so in this case it is only as far as next door to Lilaque’s son, played by baritone Laurence Cole.

The set is provides us with every scene without the need of any change except lighting. We have the bar, empty when Armand and Manon first meet, then full of business men and a selection of prostitutes, or perhaps they were merely lingerie models on a break. It also gives us a station concourse, a seedy backstreet and the salon of both father and son Lilaque where there is a sense of not so much of sexuality but depravity and degradation – sex as a commodity rather than communion.

Even her relationship, of sorts, with Armand starts by paying homage to that well known Irish star Connie Lingus, with a reprise when three visitors in pig heads, representing clients, make their own introductions to a horizontal Manon served up on Lilaque’s desk

The opera is divided into seven scenes, opening like a slow motion episode of CSI with police marking out a crime scene and Manon being led away.

It is the bare bones and, like Groundhog Day, it is a scene which we keep coming back to, with each return adding more flesh to the narrative the truth is finally revealed and Manon is led away for a life in prison.

It is a disturbing opera, stark and uncomfortable to watch and ultimately an unsatisfying experience, devoid of fun or even humanity. At the end and it was hard to feel anything for any of the characters. This is a Lyrisches Drama, a lyric drama, with strong jazz influences. There are no great arias, no memorable tunes, no heroes or heroines, and at the end just a feeling of emptiness and despair, and perhaps that was the point, a reflection of the lives we had witnessed. 03-14.

Roger Clarke 

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