Losing the Plot with Ambitious Directing Decisions — Welsh National Opera in 2014

Selecting Polish director Mariusz Trelinski to work on Henze’s Boulevard Solitude was hardly a surprising move from the Welsh National Opera. Trelinski works mostly in film, but applying his ideas to the theatre gives life to refreshing, modern productions. Similarly, Henze’s approach to opera, drawing in influences from jazz and experimental contemporary music, is exciting, sometimes challenging, but, again, refreshing. However, using the same director for Puccini’s Manon Lescaut was a bad move: another example of an over-ambitious director making decisions which unintentionally obscure the plot line and detract from the expressive qualities of the musical composition.

Of course, many of the creative ideas involved in this ambitious attempt to bring a nineteenth-century European work into a modern-day New York setting were worthy of credit. Dark but open-spaced, the set accurately depicted a city subway or train station. The chorus, who rushed across the stage in identical sharp black suits, coffees in hand and checking their watches, set the scene of anonymity and the repetitive drudgery of daily working life in the city. This interpretation was refreshing and fitted in with the complaints of Chevalier des Grieux (a melancholic young man) about daily working life and the search for love.

However, this was about as far the theme went in fitting in with the libretto and drama. Very quickly, the words of the chorus – who were singing about looking at the sky, the birds and the sun – clashed with the dark, underground setting. Later on, scene changes depicted a bar, a luxurious living room, and a prison, but the subway setting remained at the forefront in each scene. This created the worst problem in the final act, which is meant to be set in a desert; here it was difficult to understand why Manon and des Grieux were dying of thirst and seeing mirages when they still appeared to be situated in a station. It seems that, in pushing his interpretations of the storyline to the forefront, Trelinski compromised on the importance of making the staging fit the libretto, and ended up confusing the audience.

More plot confusion arose from the choice of costumes: the three principal men — Lescaut (baritone David Kempster), des Grieux (tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones) and Geronte di Ravoir (bass/baritone Stephen Richardson) — were at many points hard to distinguish from one another, all dressed in black suits. Later on, the Naval Captain was also played by Richardson, who, confusingly, wore the same white suit for both characters.

So on many accounts, this version of Puccini’s passionate opera failed, adding to the long list of recent operas that have suffered from a misjudged attempt at modernisation. However, the qualities of the musical work and its superb delivery by the WNO singers and orchestra prevented the production from being a total disaster. Jones’ voice was perhaps the stand-out feature of the performance, with a tremendous strength across the range, and his signature ‘hint of a sob’ (that had characterised his performance in Tosca a few months beforehand) was well-placed in his tragic character here. Taigi as Manon seemed to change register too frequently across phrases, which often interrupted the flow of Puccini’s lines, but her particularly powerful top notes were filled with depth, and fitted the dramatic moments well. The orchestra played beautifully under Lothar Koenigs, and with such drama and emotion that the singers and orchestra were able to carry the show despite the failures elsewhere.

On the other hand, La Traviata, in the same season, was granted a traditional set, lavish but predictable. The storyline was easy to follow, and the music, being Verdi, was unchallenging but well-played. It is clear that this was intended to be an audience pleaser, but it only highlighted the polarisation in opera audiences. It’s in the middle-ground between clarity of plot, appropriate scenery and creative directing decisions that opera becomes exciting.

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