Has any young composer in recent times written a more assured first full length opera, whilst still in their twenties, than Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude? Even at this early stage, Henze’s own voice is powerfully in evidence and, with his librettist, Grete Weil, brought a new and sophisticated sense of dramaturgy to the operatic stage. Welsh National Opera’s stunning new production, opening at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre earlier this week, made the piece feel as fresh as if written yesterday.

Sarah Tynan (Manon Lescaut) © Johan Persson
Sarah Tynan (Manon Lescaut)
© Johan Persson

First performed in Hanover in 1952, Boulevard Solitude is, like Massenet’s Manon and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, based on Prévost’s novella. Puccini’s opera, along with Verdi’s La traviata, all feature in WNO’s current season, thematically linked under the title Fallen Women. It is the latest offering from a company currently on an exciting roll and with more adventurous repertoire still in the pipeline.

Henze and Weil gave Prevost’s novella a very different character, setting it in the burnt-out shell of post-World War 2 Europe, stripping away all its rococo prettiness for the opening scene in a railway station and taking the lead from contemporary cinema, in particular Clouzet’s 1949 film Manon. Its hard-edged toughness is wonderfully caught in Polish director Mariusz Treliński’s new production, with Boris Kudlička’s set split between an airport bar and nouveau riche drawing room. Tomasz Wygoda’s choreography uses WNO’s chorus to fine effect as passengers and airport police, elegantly moving in slow motion and other types of stylised movement. The setting is contemporary, but also strangely timeless within the context of the last sixty years or so.

Henze’s score is an economical ninety minutes running without a break, but originally designed in seven scenes. A strength this production is the way in which the scenes run seamlessly into one another, giving the whole the feeling of a dreamlike stream of consciousness. 

Sarah Tynan (Manon Lescaut) © Johan Persson
Sarah Tynan (Manon Lescaut)
© Johan Persson

WNO have fielded a very strong cast for this production. Jason Bridges’s vulnerable des Grieux is lyrical and softly plaintive whilst Sarah Tynan’s incredibly strong Manon projects her line with a crystalline clarity and tonal purity. Benjamin Bevan conveys with conviction yet vocal elegance the brutishness of Lescaut whilst Adrian Thompson as Manon’s aged lover, Lilaque, brings his sense of neediness and subsequent anger to life very convincingly.

The score is Henze at his most beguiling. Its sophisticated orchestral writing has echoes of Stravinsky and Berg, mixed with jazz and popular music idioms. Its lucid and transparent textures glow and move with great naturalness under the direction of WNO Musical Director, Lothar Koenigs. Boulevard Solitude has been well received in the UK in recent years, particularly in the Royal Opera’s sell-out production of 2001, but we are still woefully ignorant of the Henze’s canon of operas, arguably the most important of the second half of the last century. Can we have more Henze, please, in productions as convincing and stylish as this?