Outside the bubble
Tom Sutcliffe on two thrilling Welsh National Opera productions
Outside London, opera in the UK is either all about touring – which is the governing factor in the life of Leeds-based Opera North, the Welsh National Opera based in Cardiff, and English Touring Opera – or it is about brief summer festivals attached to country houses with dining or picnicking facilities and pretty high ticket prices. Glyndebourne was the creator of this very British style, complete with haha keeping the cattle and sheep away from the goats/clientele in evening clothes, followed in recent decades by Garsington and Grange Park, Longborough, Holland Park Opera and a number of other smaller-scale ventures.
Full narrative world
What you get in a theatre or opera-house, by comparison, is the real presence of a full narrative world brought alive in the same room-space in which you are existing for the time in the theatre. The trouble with cinema opera is not just that it has been artificially focused on particular performers whom you watch mouthing and delivering their material far too close-up in unnatural intimacy. What you never get in the cinema relays is a continuing sense of physical context. Aged 4 I sat in the back row of the gallery at the Kings on the left gangway so I could see straight down to the stage. I already loved going to the ballet. But the music and drama of Carmen totally grabbed me. British theatre and opera outside London has always been mostly about touring and almost entirely commercial – which of course is why there is so little opera and theatre now anywhere in the ‘provinces’.
The example set by the Church is not generally followed by the thespian professions – because our Lords and Masters do not believe we need any of these things. Portsmouth, a city wrecked by bad planning decisions in the Sixties and Seventies as much as by Hitler’s bombing, was described to me as a non-functional northern city on the south coast – when I recently stayed a few days there researching my Royal Marine grandad’s commitments to cricket and singing at the History Centre opposite the Guildhall. The Portsmouth I knew as a boy has been destroyed by urban motorways and seedy pedestrianizations; it is full of derelict modern buildings and stores. The Guildhall square is a monstrous mess dominated by a television screen. Most of all it has been destroyed by the long peace. Portsmouth thrived on war. It was where the heart of the empire was ticking. It has no live theatre now. The Kings exists: but there are no professional opera or ballet visits there.
The German example
My son lives and works as an opera director in Germany – and those managing the live performing arts in the UK endlessly repeat that we Brits will never follow the German example of 100 opera and 250 theatre ensemble companies. Well, the German way is the only way to nurture and extend the audience for these things: stop the Westminster parliament spending all the money that taxes raise, abolish the Arts Council, restore power to local politics. Do what the Church does. That is the way to make local people proud of the local theatre and opera that they own and pay for. Welsh National Opera this spring has been touring two thrilling productions: Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, both based on the Prevost story about a gold-digging young beauty with whom a well-born seminarian is infatuated. Both works played to WNO strengths – emphasis on vocal muscle, serious theatrical conviction, and the wonderful musical conducting of Lothar Koenigs, WNO’s excellent German music director.
A Polish film director Mariusz Trelinski did both productions – comfortable with flashback and déjà vu, the grim tensions in the story timed exquisitely to grip attention. Manon Lescaut is sheer extravagant youthful genius, overflowing with what Puccini had picked up from his study of Wagner. Puccini’s later masterpieces are tauter and more economical. This one is a feast. Trelinski’s staging restored conviction to the romance. Manon, for the first time in my experience, did not seem like a stupid bitch who deserved what she got. Of course Puccini is unsentimental about women – a notorious serial abuser and philanderer as he was. But WNO made it all so engaging.
ChiaraTaigi in the title role had a beautiful middle and lower register and conveyed all the role’s sexiness. Gwyn Hughes Jones was superb as the hopelessly infatuated Des Grieux – earthy, helpless, delivering the tenor thrills. David Kempster as Manon’s exploitative brother Lescaut sang very beautifully and acted marvellously. Stephen Richardson as Geronte (here a sadistic criminal boss in white suit and panama hat) applied his silken timbre unforgettably. Koenigs got great playing from the orchestra and was an impeccably idiomatic maestro. The Puccini took place, like Brief Encounter, on a station platform.
The Henze version was set in a hotel bar and reception area. Manon’s arrest after she had shot Lilaque became a flashback repeat motif. Koenigs made Henze’s youthful score buoyantly appealing. Jason Bridges as young Armand de Grieux brought a juvenile idealism to the role. Benjamin Bevan was euphoric and strong as Lescaut. Sarah Tynan invested Manon with delicacy and helplessness. And Adrian Thompson made a meal of the rich repulsive M. Lilaque. ND