Friday, April 11, 2014

Henze's Brilliant Boulevard

(From 29 March 2007)

I had looked forward to viewing Hanz Werner Henze's opera, "Boulevard Solitude," based on the novel of the same name and while I adore Henze, but must admit being a tad disappointed in the opening scenes and wondered if I'd make it all the way through. I stuck with it (I tend to give everything a chance), and grew to enjoy and appreciate the opera, but by the end, still believe the first opening scenes to be problematic but fixable (though 52 years after the premiere I’m guessing this is less likely to happen and, perhaps, a problem uniquely my own). The biggest issue I had was the style and sound of the score feeling inappropriate to the story at hand. Musically, there is more than a passing nod to Wozzeck, while the story is that of Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux. (Berg’s Lulu also makes her
presence felt here, but this is more an effect of the libretto and staging than it is of the score).

Henze’s nearly pretty terrific score is going to remind a lot of people of Wozzeck . . . and a few who know it, of Zimmermann' Die Soldaten. Still, as impressive as it is, the opening scenes just don’t come across as Manon appropriate music (and I don't mean the need for it to sound like Puccini or Massenet, either!). For a tale rife with passion, desperation and seduction, the opening music, quite frankly lulled me into a boredom similar to the ennui-induced yawn I find permeating too much uninspired 20th century music. This is especially odd, because once
I was caught up in the passionate and devastating tale of des Grieux and his tragic love, the opera could have gone on another hour. (As it is, it stands at 7 scenes, no intermissions and runs about 10-15 minutes shy of two hours.)

The production by Tobias Hoheisel and directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, won the Olivier Award a couple of years ago and it’s easy to see why. Filmed here at the Liceu, (with most of the cast changed from the premiere) it remains an
eye-poppingly gorgeous thing to behold evening,, but is not without a few directorial clunks that I found a tad too arty and obvious. Based on the novel of the same name, this retelling of Manon & Des Grieux places more emphasis on the tenor then the heroine and it works, since it is generally Des Grieux that tends to win the audience's sympathies.

A massive, multi-level unit set brings is into the heart of a 1940's train station, filled with all manner of bustling human activity. Unfortunately, during scenic interludes, the same "bustling activity" seems to occur with only small, but highly noticeable variations, the equivalent of a visual leitmotif. As near identical scenes play out over and over, the feeling I got was I should be caring a little for some of them, and yet, I didn't. One of these, the young man with the bouquet, looking increasingly dejected before finally disappearing altogether, (what must have seemed an even more intriguing idea on paper), comes close to achieving the goal. Mostly, however, it's an endless parade of the same characters, with the odd variation from scene-to-scene with a couple of characters (i.e., the aforementioned young man) looking a little worse for the wear each time they pop up.

Pär Lindskog recreates his Des Grieux and he is appealing as the tortured, philosophy loving student who falls under the spell of that temptress, Manon. His descent into drug use and drunkennness is entirely believable and I could not help feeling his torment acutely as anyone who's fallen into youthful despair over love gone wrong will also easily be able to relate to. I rather liked Lindskog's Des Grieux, so much in fact, I felt embarrassed for him in several scenes.

Laura Aikin certainly has a tough row to hoe as Manon. Already not a particularly lovable character in any of the Manon stories, Henze's angular, difficult music feels built to put her plight at odds with with our sympathies from the get go. Indeed, her very first meeting with Des Grieux finds her little more than coy, calculating and manipulative. That all changes, however, when we meet her big brother, an oily, heartless, nee'r do well, who manipulates his sister solely for his own gain and without any regard whatsoever to her happiness or well being. He is the definition of scoundrel, this Lescaut. Tom Fox, looking a little "greasy" is slick as Manon's nasty brother, and while his voice doesn't sound as warmly attractive as I once recall, he remains a highly effective singer and will make you want to crack him in the teeth, or at least blacken an eye. Trust me. It is Lescaut who pimps out his sister, and does what he can to thwart the love between Manon and Des Grieux. His succès d'estime coming by hooking Manon up with her sugar daddy, the unappealingly bland Lalique (and then later, Lalique’s son).

Henze's 1952 score has post-German-expressionistic stamped all over it, yet should still not deter anyone, who thinks they cannot find modern "difficult" music, attracitve. Throughout, there are moments of great lyrical beauty and several scenes stamped with Henze’s particular genius. There is also some stunning, atmospheric music for chorus, most notably in the "Sorbonne" scene with young scholars quoting Catullus in Latin, and the interlude to the harrowing final scene. Henze also makes a judicious use of jazz riffs to open up the score in what seems to be a stroke of brilliance.

Zoltan Pesko conducts the Liceu forces in a performance of this immense, difficult, and complex jigsaw puzzle of a score, a task made seemingly more difficult by this complicated staging. If one doesn’t appreciate this performance, one sipmly will not be a fan of this opera. Yes, it’s that damned good. (I’d be pleasantly surprised if any American audience rewarded this production as vociferously as does the Liceu crowd at the final curtain.)

An added bit of sweetness occurs as Maestro Henze is escorted from his stall seat, down to the pit as the house goes bonkers. Soon, the entire cast has climbed down from the stage to kiss, hug and congratulate the deeply moved Henze. Nice.

The disc is on EuroArts and widely available and highly recommended to anyone hungry for a bit of opera outside the standard rep.