S&H Opera review

HENZE: Boulevard Solitude Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Opening night - 20 March 2001 (RW)

With the flurry of activity surrounding apparent lack of ticket sales, and some obtuse remarks on both composer and opera in the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that Boulevard Solitude is some product of 1950s avant-garderie - an anti-opera in substance and intention. What was actually seen and heard is an opera, consciously drawing on tradition, which is as uncannily representative of its time as it may be of our own.

Henze's work up to then was that of a gifted composer ill at ease in his artistic mileu. Nominally successful as a conductor of opera and ballet, the twin conformities of post-war German society and an emergent serial orthodoxy among his contemporaries fostered an urge towards unfettered self-expression. Time spent in Paris in 1951 brought him into contact with the liberating forces of jazz and electronic music, both of which influence the manner, if rather less the content of Boulevard Solitude. What does permeate the opera is the freedom in expressing alienation as prevalent in Parisian culture, making for a drama where protest and despair, cynicism and conviction meet in disconcerting accord.

Grete Weil's pithy yet eloquent libretto is in the line of descent from Prévost's early 18th century novel, while departing from it in the emphasis given to Des Grieux as the defining consciousness of the stage drama; against which Manon appears a curiously equivocal synthesis of earth-spirit, social climber and innocent, with the guiding factor of none. Whether or not Des Grieux is himself a cypher for alienated Everyman depends on whether Henze's opera is seen as a negatory end in itself, or a parable of the need for change (the not dissimilar position of the play Baal within Brecht's output is worth pondering).

The form of Boulevard Solitude owes much to the example of immediate predecessors, notably Wolfgang Fortner's Dantons Tod. The follow-through of seven scenes, connected by musical postludes, interludes and preludes, in a continuous sequence of some 80 minutes, looks back also to Berg's Wozzeck, though with the latter's unique 'expressionist realism' replaced by an idiom altogether cooler and more dispassionate. Moreover, the elegance with which Henze reconciles serial and neo-classical elements was to act as a springboard for the next 15 years of his development.

In an opera where locality is a defining presence, staging assumes a subtly pervasive function. Judged on its own terms, Nikolaus Lehnhoff has succeeded superbly in creating a decor whose archetypal columns, dovetailing neatly between station and bedroom, the public and private domains of the principal characters' mercenary existence, are the very symbol of faded opulence, This blanched quality, distinctive but unconvincing in other Lehnhoff stagings (not least the ROH Palestrina), comes into its own here, enhanced by discreet variations in lighting from Paul Pyant. As an evocative setting which never distracts from the production, it would be difficult to better.

Vocally the opera is cast from strength, with Pär Lindskog eloquent as Des Grieux, carrying the emotional brunt of the drama as he veers from impetuousness to resignation. Alexandra ven der Werth's magnetic Manon is not ideally poised, but to suggest total identification with a such an emotionally detached role would be to miss the point. Wolfgang Rauch is suave and scheming as the exploitative Lescaut, while Chris Merritt shows few serious signs of strain as the bourgeois sham that is Lilaque père.

Bernhard Kontarsky, well established as a conductor of post-war European repertoire, makes a welcome debut at the Royal Opera. His authority is evident from the outset, the dramatic pacing such that the opera's few emotional highpoints neither draw attention to themselves, nor impede the musical flow which proceeds obsessively from the percussive cross-rhythms of the opening bars. He discreetly points up the effect the children's chorus, emerging impassively at the close to intone a Jubilate on a stage empty in all senses.

Boulevard Solitude may be of its time, but it is hardly a period piece. Indeed, the portrayal of a society which clings to conformity and mutual exploitation as its only sure means of survival invites speculative comparison with our own time. Maybe an era has almost come full circle. Maybe it never needed to.

Richard Whitehouse

[Further performances on March 23, 26 and 29 / April 2 and 4 Box Office 020 7304 4000 / Online: www.royaloperahouse.org]

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