Tag Archives: Adrian Thompson

Two Manons in MK / Boulevard Solitude + Manon Lescaut / Welsh National Opera / Milton Keynes Theatre – 13+14 March 2014

24 Mar

WNO Boulevard + ManonThe programming of the Welsh National Opera under David Pountney’s leadership is continuing to explore themed seasons that make an intellectual argument in addition to adding to the repertoire mix of what must be Britain’s most ambitious regional opera company. Currently it looks at fallen women, a subject that fascinated composers and librettists and created some of the most frequently performed works, like La Traviata and Madama Butterfly.

The particular pairing of the story of Manon and how it was treated by Henze and Puccini is one of those rare opportunities to look anew at those two works and to uncover the common threads that run across them, especially with one director working on both works. Trelinski brought across his Manon Lescaut production as seen at La Monnaie  two years ago and intriguingly he built his new production of Boulevard Solitude as a development of the same ideas. A very suitable way of working when one deals with the same story despite the diversity of treatment by the two composers.

Boulevard Solitude was for me the great winner of this gamble by WNO. The fragmented reality modernism of the set and direction. Heavily dependent of imaginative use of body doubles of Manon to display her states of being was a great match for the Henze’s rather playful jazzy score that fizzes and pops with the use of vibraphone, glockenspiel and an assortment of xylophones and moving mandolin cadenzas. In lesser hands this score could have been a souped up mess but Henze adds nuance and feeling in the sheer variety of his vocal writing, particularly apparent in his treatment of the male and female singers.  He is obviously regaling in bringing the nocturnal, sleazy jazziness into the heart of the score.

Boulevard Solitude was clearly the stand out production where Trelinski and Henze truly had a meaningful meeting of intellects. His treatment of the story puts a visual emphasis on the one true sypher of the work, Manon herself. Sarah Tynan becomes the available femme fatale in her underwear and suspenders wandering across the three part set (railway station / bar / apartment) in a vicious cycle of destruction and the one that gets split in three personalities by the use of two actresses/body doubles. The overall effect is a surreal dream of Manon through the eyes of Des Grieux but without any of the implied misogyny of the her downfall being a payback for her immoral actions. This Manon is as fragmented and as complex as the score and libretto imply. Her singing as strong as one would hope and filled with a particularly appropriate frosty sexuality.

The telling casting of Des Grieux with a young all american singer is a clever choice, as Jason Bridges offered the wide-eyed simplicity and the unshakable belief in true love. The Lescaut of Benjamin Bevan was a solid attempt at an utter sleazeball, a man only ruled by the morality of money and pimping his own sister. The Lilaque of Adrian Thompson sounded a little bit pinched at times but delivered a spirited performance that underpins most of the director’s concept. The common thread of all seven scenes is the gradual lead to Lilaque’s shooting by Manon. In the first scene two police officers put numbers on the floor and take photographs of the supposed crime scene, later on the bloodless body of Lilaque will lie there in position to be drawn around with chalk. By the time he is shot in the final scene we are all complicit to the conclusion of this human drama. We expect it and yet we are gripped by Manon lifting her gun and shooting the old man. Tellingly Lilaque, a creature of luxury and excess, smears his own blood all over his face after being shot, as if to enjoy the taste of his own blood before he dies. An image both repugnant and yet in character for a man who consumption is the core of his being. He goes full circle and consumes his own blood.

Manon Lescaut was much less successful as Trelinski diverts too much from Puccini’s ideas and gets fascinated by the psychology of the characters. The overall darkness and sense of isolation and misanthropy that emanates from the direction is a very intriguing mix and it does concentrate the ear to Puccini’s more modernist stylings that usually get lost in period productions and their decorative sets. But the main failing is the lack of a sense of place. The faceless railway station set and how it metamorphoses into a high society salon and a train carriage is very well done but it lacks any individuality. The fast paced action with many actors, the half naked prostitutes and the impotent Geronte who takes off his oxygen mask and uses it to smell the genitals of one of the dancers adds to the dystopian feel and look. Manon again becomes the great unknown with body doubles that show up and create cinematic tableaux.

His great idea is for Act Four to be a post-death meeting for the two lovers in the purgatory of the railway station. They connect and disconnect in an endless parade of different facets of their lives up to that point. A great intellectual idea that adds much needed emotional weight to a production that stuns by its coldness and meat market treatment of the human body. At least Manon’s final scene is left without any clever interventions and Chiara Taigi is left to weave her dark hued voice into a spine tingling finale. The video projection of hills and wilderness, making the only reference to Puccini’s Louisiana desert setting. The deportation scene earlier on was turned into a cruel freak show with bystanders lifting cards to mark each prisoner as they cat walked their degraded self down this path of scorn. A horrid depiction of Manon’s downfall and a time when the sleek surface of the direction shows this self-satisfied crowd as the main villain of the work. Manon is being judged by society and cast aside.

A night at the opera should not always be a comfortable night of entertainment and after leaving this Manon I was left with many questions and thinking about the nature of the work but ultimately felt that it was a let down at an emotional level. The singing by Gwyn Hughes Jones, (who started in an underwhelming fashion) and David Kempster (in full on 1980s pimp mode in white suit and silver chain)  was ideal in creating the two opposites male characters that dominate Manon’s life and add further contrast.

Both productions benefited by the excellent conducting of Lothar Koenigs and the clearly well rehearsed orchestra and chorus. The multifaceted nature of Henze’s writing was brought in vibrant, quivering life by the alertness of the instrumental solos. Puccini’s score was also rendered with great vibrancy and made me notice the lurking modernism under the 18th century gloss. Also worth mentioning the stage management team of WNO who have to tour those busy productions around England and Wales while keeping continuity despite the different capabilities of each venue.

WNO Boulevard + Manon List

Curtain Calls

Some tweets from the two evenings

Click here to read the very interesting Trelinski interview on the two productions 

One week, two Flutes, two productions, two cities / The Magic Flute / English National Opera + Scottish Opera / 15 + 21 October 2012

3 Nov

Oh how funny the repertoire planning of opera houses can be…you wait for one Magic Flute  and two show up concurrently. With a third one to be added early 2013 by the Royal Opera.

Had the chance to watch two very different productions of The Magic Flute in one week. The 1986 effort by Nicholas Hytner for English National Opera, a breakthrough and much revived production and the brand new production by Thomas Allen for Scottish Opera. In many ways they both had a traditional outlook but it was fascinating seeing the ways two directors resolved the same problems.

Hytner’s production was justifiably famous and much loved. This was the final run of performance before retiring it. The white semi circular set opening to more colourful stage pictures still looks modern and verging on a historicising minimalism. His witty touches such as the coup de theatre when Papagena appears in a bird nest being lowered to the stage was a ingenious mix of imagination and pertinent visual humour. The appearance of Papageno complete with trained doves that come from backstage and land on his cage every time he uses his pipe is an enchanting piece of stagecraft that is simple as it is effective.

After all the Magic Flute is a magical singspiel that has more than a passing reference to the child in all of us and most notably Mozart himself. Its pretty ridiculous story trajectory can only convince as the story telling of a grown up child being mystified by what the proper adults are up to. The secret society behind Sarastro becomes unexplained and hazy with most of the storytelling effort put into the primary characters and their quest for love. The sparse white set becomes the confusing world Tamino explores with a sense of wonder and trepidation. The lack of stage clutter afforded the singers the time to establish a relationship with the audience.
Hytner’s take is very formal, his Flute has no camp jollity but in this last revival it had space for the brilliantly zany Papageno of Duncan Rock, a handsome über-Australian interpretation with idiomatic banter and a spontaneous sense of fun. His Papagena was also a very geographically specific creature. Rhian Lois was a totally camp Welsh caricature appearing as a hunchbacked tea lady pushing a trolley. This in keeping with the singers’ specific attributes took the 18th century inspired costumes to a different place, bringing the narrative stagecraft in touch with reality but not a current, stand up comedy sensibility. Rock calling the last two doves to enter the cage Kylie and Jason was hilarious and played on his on-stage persona. The Masonic scenes where staged in front of a gilded full height hieroglyph punched screen with Sarastro and his circle in white robes, again adorned with hieroglyphs. The break in the action was decisive and clear cut. Also the creation of the bedroom where Pamina is kept captive was set up with an impressive length of red fabric being released and draped on a mattress in the middle of the stage. A graphic, bold look that was very memorable. This revival had the good fortune to have Elena Xanthoudakis in great form, singing her heart out and acting with total conviction. The second act was a tour de force and it was very difficult to take our eyes off her.

Tom Allen’s take was on a more Bacchanalian scale. His set and characters are more the ones of a variety show than an opera and in many ways all the better for it. Plucking a deferential Nicky Spence from a side of the stage box and thrown to the stage complete with a libretto was a good laugh out idea. But it also saddled our leading man with a gormless naivete for the length of the performance. His direction was miles away from Hytner’s respectful and much more cool-headed approach.
The production has a very local feel, Allen mined the steam punk iconography and the bric-a-brac of the Hunterian Museum into a volatile mix of dry ice overload and sexiness. The set was an amalgam of Jules Verne and shiny matt gold automaton. The central aperture at the centre back of the stage configured in different shapes and sizes was the main entry for new characters creating a dramatic focus on the singers. While the sets and costumes are busy the production doesn’t feel cluttered. It is essentially a production by a singer for the singers. Some visual touches that make it memorable has to be the three boys that seem to float at the back of the stage with their propeller parasols adding a picture book panache.

To call the overall look 19th century industrial pornography would be very accurate and in most aspects it works. The only major failing was how Sarastro was presented (in trendy fitted coat with flashes of black leather) his religious/masonic function totally eradicated as he presides over this industrial music hall, as the curtain adornment betrays (a proscenium like add on to the curtain with lights and ‘the secret of life’ and ‘Sarastro’ scribbled on it. But overall the clever characterisation and the hilarious dialogue made up for any directorial shortcomings. Our Papageno, Richard Burkhard, was refreshingly different to the suave and luminous Rock. He played it for laughs…hilariously when imploring for a girlfriend he refers in desperation suggesting that a boy would rather have him instead. We didn’t get the Great British Bake Off (as on the opening couple of performances) joke this time but just a reference to Mr Kipling’s cakes. As it tours around Scotland I can only imagine how much fun he will have with the topical references.
Nicky Spence sang with great assurance for most of the night and looked surely the part in the beautiful costumes by Simon Higlett, like the rest of the cast. His recent Novice for the new ENO Billy Dudd was costumed so abysmally everyone on stage apart from the high ranking seamen looked like they wore potato sacks. The costumes for the Queen of the Night and the Three Ladies were a particular highlight, all fibre optic lighting and glitter. Morriya’s singing was spectacular, with beautiful runs and pin point coloratura it was a shame that her Pamina was a rather pale creature in the hands of Laura Mitchell but the humorous banter and  innuendo ridden sexiness of the Ladies made up for any characterisation shortcomings.

On the orchestral side of things, ENO’s orchestra had a much more idiomatic, sweetly chromatic sound under the baton of Nicholas Collon who gave a solid and dreamy reading. Reflecting largely the more romantic staging. While the Scottish Opera Orchestra sounded much better than the last time I heard them live. But there was a bit too much steam and not enough dream in the heavily propelled reading by Ekhart Wycik. But then it is worth noting that Scottish Opera is the only major UK company to not have any artistic staff on its permanent roster, on the aftermath of a well publicised financial fall out. The orchestra has just been declared a co-operative which hopefully will help them settle into a more stable pattern of working and achieve a more unified sound. But overall the singers seemed very well drilled and the chorus offered some memorable singing.

Overall this Scottish Opera Flute has the stamp of a very happy production, with a particular Scottish slant. Comparing these two memorable productions, it seems the new one is ideal for our times. It is faster, meaner, funnier and definitely a great night out. If you live in Scotland or if you plan a holiday north of the borders this one is worth catching and I can imagine it would be a great introduction to opera neophytes. 

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