Boulevard Solitude

My DVD of Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude arrived the day before his death at the weekend and so went straight to the top of the reviewing pile.   It’s an intriguing piece.  It’s based on the same Abbé Prevost novel as all the other versions of Manon but updated to the period of composition (1952) and told from the viewpoint of des Grieux rather than Manon.  In this version des Grieux picks Manon up at a railway station while she is on her way to finishing school in Lausanne.  They run away to Paris but des Grieux is broke and Manon’s brother pimps her to a rich old man, Lilaque.  The brother robs the old man’s house which gets them both kicked out.  Manon has a brief fling with des Grieux before her brother pimps her out again; this time to Lilaque’s son.  By this time des Grieux has a pretty serious cocaine problem.  The cocaine, naturally, is supplied by Lescaut.  Lescaut is in the process of stealing a painting from Lilaque fils when Lilaque père shows up.  Lescaut hands Manon a gun and she kills the old man.  In the last scene we are back at the railway station where a disconsolate des Grieux waits for one last glance at Manon as she is taken to prison.

Nicholas Lehnhoff’s production was first seen at Covent Garden in 2001 but the DVD recording was made at Barcelona’s Liceu in 2007.  Lehnhoff chooses to emphasise anonymity and alienation.  People of all sorts pass to and fro, up and down on his multi level set, especially during the orchestral interludes that separate the seven scenes.  It’s busy but seems carefully thought out.  It’s all backed up by painterly, mainly monochrome sets, and appropriately period costumes.  Manon gets an interesting range from couture to lingerie.  Lescaut gets a suitably spivvish loud pin stripe suit and so on.

Musically it’s a pretty rich piece.  It’s a mix of twelve tone, more lyrically tonal passages plus significant jazz influences.  I think the music supports the drama very well while being much more than merely programmatic.  The performances are very good indeed.  Laura Aikin is simply superb as Manon.  She sings and acts beautifully conveying the not always quite there quality of the character effectively.  She’s also very decorative.  Tom Fox really makes Lescaut a believable if thoroughly nasty character.  I took a while to warm to Pär Lindskog’s des Grieux.  His voice is unusual and not always especially pleasant to listen to but he does portray his ineffectual character convincingly.  Hubert Delamboye and Pauls Putniȵš are perfectly OK as the Lilaques.  Zoltán Peskó conducts and gives a committed and full blooded reading of the score.  He gets good support from the Orquesta Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu, the Cor de Cambra del palau de la Música Catalana and the Cor Vivalsi: Petits Cantors de Catalunya.

Xavi Bové directs for video.  It’s a typically annoying effort with some odd angles and constant switching from close up to close up even during the interludes.  The effect is that we can barely see Lehnhoff’s apparently carefully composed movements.  That aside, the disk is pretty good.  The DTS surround sound is vivid and spatially solid with a good balance between voices and orchestra.  The picture is pretty much as good as DVD gets.  The only disk extras are some trailers for other Euro arts releases though the booklet inccludes a useful essay by Kenneth Chalmers.  Subtitle options are English, French, German, Castilian and Catalan.

I think this is a must see disk for anyone with an interest in post war European opera. If you do watch it don’t switch off at the curtain calls. There’s a very touching bit where a very frail Henze is pretty much carried to the lip of the orchestra pit to take his bow.

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