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Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
December 12th, 2011, 01:04 AM
Henze: Boulevard Solitude on DVD
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Boulevard Solitude, opera (Lyrisches Drama) in once act and seven scenes, sung in German (small part in Latin), premiered in 1952 in Hanover, Germany, with stage direction by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (a smashing success).

Music by Hans Werner Henze (born in 1926, still alive - 25-years-old at the time of the composition)

Libretto by Grete Weil, loosely based on the Abbé Antoine-François Prévost's novel, Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731), with influences from the 1949 screen version of the novel that won the Golden Lion in Venice, entitled Manon and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, and with title inspired by Billy Wilder's movie Sunset Boulevard (1950), and the modern play Boulevard Solitude by Walter Jockisch.

Recorded live (composite of three performances) at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, in March of 2007, reviving a production from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (2001)

Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu, conducted by Zoltán Peskó
Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Música Catalana
Cor Vivaldi: Petits Cantors de Catalunya

Manon Lescault - Laura Aikin
Armand Des Grieux - Pär Lindskog (he was also in the London production)
Lescaut - Tom Fox
Lilaque, father - Hubert Delamboye
Lilaque, son - Pauls Putnins
Francis - Marc Canturri
Lilaque, son's servant - Basil Patton

Stage direction - Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who attended the World Première in Hanover in 1952, very young at the time.

Sets and costumes - Tobias Hoheisel
Choreography - Denni Sayers
Directed for TV by Xavi Bové

EuroArts DVD, released in September of 2007, region code zero, picture format NTSC 16:9, sound formats PCM stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1. Optional subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, and Catalan. Running time 102 minutes. No extras except for four trailers from other EuroArts releases, including Henze's L'Upupa.

Liner notes include several production pictures in black-and-white and color, list of tracks with duration and characters, two essays (one in English, German, and French, and a different one in Spanish only). A brief synopsis is provided in the tri-lingual text, and a much more detailed one in the Spanish-only text.

Henze's modernist opera Boulevard Solitude employs both dodecaphonic serialism, and conventional tonality. The parts that depict the the corrupt world that surrounds the lovers is orchestrated in regular tonality, while the parts that depict the two lovers are dodecaphonic to symbolize genuine feelings, following the avant-garde movement of the 50's that considered serial music as an expression of authenticity and freedom. Another characteristic of Henze's stage work is the intense use of movement on stage. The hall in the train station is a sort of recurring visual Leitmotif with its aimless movements, unanswered phone calls, missed appointments, and the intermezzi between the scenes always return to it.

Henze is a disciple of René Leibowitz's and frequented the famous summer school for new music in Darmstadt where he was taught serialism, but he's been living in Italy since a young age and also incorporated tonal influences. His first full opera, Boulevard Solitude, also made use of rhythms and melodies from jazz. Still, there are a couple of traditional sounding arias, such as when Lescaut suggests that Manon prostitutes herself in the second scene, or in the decisively Belcanto style aria in the third scene when Manon is writing a letter to Armand.

The story of Manon Lescaut had previously been set to music by Auber, Puccini, and Massenet. Weil's libretto, however, changes the events slightly.

First of all, the action is updated to Paris after World War II, when Existentialism was in full force. The libretto underlines urban solitude, the hardships of loving and living in the city, and the lack of sense and purpose in what people feel and do.

In Henze's and Weil's opera and unlike in Puccini's and Massenet's, Manon does meet Armand at the train station, but she doesn't interact with any rich patrons there, and elopes directly with Armand, under the indifferent gaze of her brother Lescaut. Later however when Armand's money runs out and the girl develops a fancy for luxury items, Lescaut proposes that she prostitutes herself by becoming the mistress of rich old man Lilaque. Also differently from the earlier operas, she goes back to Armand for a while (after running away from Lilaque's home when she and her brother are caught stealing money), and then becomes Lilaque's son's mistress. Meanwhile Armand becomes a drug addict. Brother and sister try again to steal - this time a painting; Lilaque's son's servant summons the older Lilaque who catches them again, but this time Manon shots him dead. She is arrested, and the opera ends with a desperate Armand in front of her prison. No Lousiana scene.

The staging by Lenhoff was a success with the public and the critics. He focuses the action on a large train station hall where people walk back and forth anonymously and solitary, symbolizing the Boulevard Solitude of the title. These people enter and exit but can't move on and leave the scene for good, they keep coming back and repeating their actions. They seem to have no compass, no goal. Even the decorative elements acquire symbolic value, such as the painting Hotel Room by Edward Hooper. Staging is not realistic by stylized, for example when the people coming and going stop and remain static to underline the movements of one of the characters, and also in the fact that the various rooms for the seven scenes are just suggested by small modifications of the train station hall, rather than recreated.

A touching detail is that Henze himself in his 80's attended this performance at the Liceu, and the camera captures him in the end, getting from the public a standing ovation.

Unlike Puccini's and Massenet's, this opera is mostly told from the standpoint of Armand and his personal tragedy. The libretto contains interesting references and quotations, such as poem 92 from Catullus' Carmina, in Latin, and an allusion to Jean Genet's existentialist novel Notre Dame des Fleurs. There is also a moment in which the characters discuss the pros and cons of avant-garde visual arts, over a painting by Georg Baselitz.

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Now, the performance.

The opening scene elaborates on this concept of people coming and going but then stopping dead on their tracks and remaining static once one of the main characters does something. The music is an interesting jazzy percussion with brass. The Liceu orchestra gets quite loud and strident at times and I'm not entirely pleased with it.

The vocal music opens with a duo between Armand and Manon. Laura Aikin has a classy and elegant beauty (in spite of looking a bit old for the role) and sings divinely, with a powerful and full soprano that rings beautifully in the upper tones, and well executed trills. Swedish tenor Pär Lindskog on the other hand while technically good has a timbre that I personally find unpleasant (matter of taste). He is however very musically passionate although his physical acting doesn't match his musicality. He is actually a quite mediocre actor in my opinion, with stock gestures. So far, at least. And he looks unconvincing as a young student. Her acting is much less good than her voice, and the two main characters don't display the same chemistry that we've seen in other interpreters of the same story set to music by other composers (where are Anna or Natalie when we need them?). We do get generous displays of cleavage and legs, and Ms. Aikin's, cough, cough, assets do please Almaviva.

Incestuous elements are present - I'm not sure if they were there in the libretto - when brother Lescaut comes to suggest prostitution to Manon, and touches her a lot, grabs her breasts from behind. I definitely don't like Tom Fox. He sings too loudly with no real sense of musicality. His acting is weak as well.

Problems with orchestral balance persist. Can we tone down the brass, please? Don't encourage them too much, maestro!

I very much like the spatial dynamics of the staging, and the intermezzi are musically very enticing. The scenarios are beautiful and the transformations to hint at different rooms in spite of the use of the same space are very clever. Costumes are years 50, and tasteful.

Partial impression so far:

This is a very good opera in itself, and it is presented in a very good staging, and Manon is sung by a vocally very stimulating soprano who also has enticing looks. But this is pretty much where the good ends, because other vocal artists are not as good singers, mostly all of them are weak actors, and the orchestra doesn't impress me favorably either.

This production probably suffers from the revival syndrome. There was probably better acting direction with more rehearsals for the original London performances. As it goes in Barcelona, the production seems unpolished, with stock acting (which sometimes seems intentional, huh, that's weird - as if they were going for caricatures - it's a possible angle to understand this - but even if it is intentional, I don't really like it).

I definitely like the score and the vocal writing. I'll be interested in exploring other Henze operas after this one (L'Upupa seems promising - and there's also The Bassarids - out of print and too expensive with used copies selling for $125 - his last one Phaedra, and Der junge Lord - Henze is very prolific with 40 stage works, but only about a forth of them are full operas - e.g. he also composed a successful ballet, Ondine). L'Upupa and Der junge Lord are available on DVD.

Very good scenes keep coming one after the other - the part in Latin is really beautiful (scene IV). Like I said, the opera itself is high quality although I'm a bit less pleased with this particular performance.

The libretto is good, more literary and more challenging than those of prior versions of the story.

The way the bar slides in with green neon light is very impressive and effective (5th scene).

Great staging! Kudos to Lehnhoff!

Lilaque the son comes in, and Mr. Putnins is not any better than the others.

Even the occasionally strident orchestra doesn't bother me, really. I'd just change the cast (might keep Ms. Aikin as long as she displayed a bit of chemistry with her lover) and we'd have a masterful production and an unforgettable DVD.

As it is, I'm guessing that if I don't change my mind until the end, I'll give to this opera a "highly recommended" rating; the same to the staging; but would still give to this DVD just a "recommended" rating due to the generally weak cast.

Continuing - again a very beautiful scene, the 5th one.

Scene 6 opens with a scantly clad Ms. Aikin, who continues to sing well and look good. Mr. Lindskog also continues to look indifferent, disconnected, with zero chemistry and non-existing acting.

By the way, Hubert Delamboye as Lilaque the father sings relatively well although he also yells too loudly (what's wrong with these people?). No acting either.

The last scene is equally powerful. Curtain.

No, I haven't changed my mind. Very, very good opera, one of the best in the 20th century. Very, very good staging. Good leading soprano. Otherwise, we need a different cast and better acting direction.

The elderly composer taking a bow at the end is almost worth the purchase on its own, though.

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
December 12th, 2011, 01:07 AM
Henze: L'Upupa on DVD


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L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe; Ein deutches Lustpiel in elf Tableaux aus dem Arabischen
(The Hoopoe and the Triumph of Filial Love; a German comedy in eleven tableaux based on the Arabic)

Premiered in Salzburg (this performance) in 2003
Music and Libretto by Hans Werner Henze (*1926)

2003 Live Composite (August 12-26) at the Kleines Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Conductor - Markus Stenz
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor

Stage Director - Dieter Dorn
Video Director - Brian Large
Sets and Costumes - Jürgen Rose

Cast

Al Radshi (the old man known as The Excentric Widower), Grand Vizier of Manda, the Island of Black Babboons - Alfred Muff
Badi'at el-Hosn wal Dschamal (A Jewish girl) - Laura Aikin
Al Kasim (The Sharer), Al Radshi's youngest son - Matthias Goerne
Der Dämon (The Demon) - John Mark Ainsley
Malik (the ancient Sultan of Pati) - Hanna Schwarz
Dijab (the old tyrant of Kipungani) - Günter Missenhardt
Adschib (The Wayward), another son, good for nothing - Axel Köhler
Gharib (The Untrustworthy), another son, a sly fox - Anton Scharinger

EuroArts DVD release (2005), NTSC, 16:9 anamorphic, Region code zero, Running Time 143', Sound Formats PCM stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1. Subtitles in English, German, and French. No extras.

Liner notes with a 2-page essay in English, German, and French, a few production photos in B&W and color, and chapter list with characters and durations.

This is the last work for the stage by the accomplished elderly composer Henze (at least, that's what he said, but since he's still alive, one never knows - [correction - as clarified by schigolch below, he didn't stop after all and has written two more]). He was inspired by two hoopoes who frequently flit about his olive grove at his house in an Italian village south of Home.

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He decided to write the libretto himself (a first for him) and compose this light opera in two acts and eleven tableaux that is in part inspired by Mozart's The Magic Flute. The basis for the plot is a kind of popular story from Syria coming from Arab and Persian traditions, but Henze did incorporate some German folk traditions into it as well. Henze's score reminds critics of Berg, Debussy, and Stravinsky, and was considered to be his richest and most entrancing opera score. His blended sonorities and vocal writing are considered to be seductive, and his instrumentation beguiling.

Here is the synopsis, which I lifted from the Wikipedia article:

Al Radshi, an old man, who lives in a tower on Manda, the island of the black baboons, laments the absence of his golden bird, a female hoopoe that used to visit him daily. Al Radshi once reached out to touch the hoopoe, which caused it to fly away. Since then, the bird has not been seen. Al Radshi asks his three sons to go off on a quest to find the hoopoe and return it to him. Two of the sons are untrustworthy and lazy, but the third, Al Kasim, is honest and brave. Al Kasim is the only son to go off in search of the hoopoe.

Al Kasim does find the hoopoe, with the help of a demon, who is a fallen angel with tattered black wings and who has been barred from heaven for an unidentified crime. Al Kasim then has to find and rescue a captive princess, Badi'eat el-Hosn. He does so, and falls in love with her. His next quest is to find a magic chest.

After Al Kasim has obtained these three treasures, the other two brothers reappear and push Kasim and Badi'aet el-Hosn down a well. Those two brothers return to their father and claim credit for performing Al Kasim's acts. However, Al Kasim and Badi'aet el-Hosn are eventually rescued. The other two brothers are expelled from the island. Al Kasim cannot marry Badi'aet el-Hosn, however, until he completes one more quest. The opera leaves unresolved the question of whether Al Kasim and Badi'aet el-Hosn are united at the end.

Some people have made the following parallels with The Magic Flute:

Al Kasim = Tamino
Badi'at el-Hosn wal Dschamal = Pamina
Dijab = Sarastro

There are also parallels with Mozart's Seraglio in some passages. Henze himself acknowledges these influences when he mentions how close he had felt to Mozart when he was composing L'Upupa.

There are also several fairy tale elements - Al Kasim listens to singing flowers at one point; Al Kasim and Badi'at at another point are trapped in a deep well and it turns into a shaft through which limits can be transcended; there are malevolent gnomes who perform grotesque dances in response to magic words.

While Henze does tone-paint these fairy tale elements, he does so with restraint and economy of notes, unlike his exhuberant and over-the-top previous opera Venus and Adonis which required three interlocking orchestras to be performed.

Here, Henze seems to be saying his farewell and trying to let go (which is what Al Radshi does when his bird is returned to him - this is even more clear when we realize that Al Radshi with his stance of watching everything from his tower, represents the composer himself). The upupa (Italian for hoopoe) is the symbol of beauty in art, and can't be owned by anybody. In the last scene the opera fades away into the blue evening light, when the Grand Vizier and Badi'at silently watch Al Kasim ride away, while the music becomes dreamy as if Henze was addressing the listener in a magical sound-poem, his regretful gesture of farewell, his swan song.

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Now, the performance.

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The DTS sound on this DVD is amazing, with a very impressive opening effect of a bird flapping its wings and flying around the listener from one surround speaker to the next.

Beautiful minimalistic, clever staging with colorful scenarios. The image definition is not the greatest though, and one regrets that this is not a blu-ray disc.

The opening scene has Alfred Muff in great form, singing beautifully and convincingly, narrating the story of the disappearance of the hoopoe. The sounds emanating from the orchestra are intriguing and interesting. Nine minutes into the performance, I'm sure that I'll enjoy this quite a lot.

Oh well, the second scene is not as good. Again the scenarios are very interesting, but Axel Köhler the countertenor has a very annoying voice. Anton Scharinger on the other hand is very good.

The third scene shows us the fallen angel with dark wings (the demon) and the singer does a good job, both vocally and in terms of acting - actually so far he's the best singer: John Mark Ainsley, a tenor. The scene also contains our hero, Al Kasim. Unfortunately baritone Matthias Goerne is not as good as Ainsley. His voice is sort of restrained and doesn't project well. He doesn't make any mistakes, but he is sort of bland (and unlike other baritones, ladies, his paunchy self is not attractive). His acting is equally weak.

The strikingly beautiful sets (which sort of reproduce the surface of a small planet) is one of the best parts of this production (it is a co-production of the Teatro Real from Madrid and the Deutsche Oper Berlin).

Spectacular scene transition with huge dark wings. What a staging!

The short orchestral intermezzo is fabulous. I really like Henze!

Next, big moon, blue lights, and we're in a garden. The music is delicate and melodious. The opera suddenly turns into Singspiel, and several fantastic creatures appear. It becomes very Magic Flute-like. Malike, a trouser role, makes his entrance. The hoopoe has been caught. Costumes, masks, colors, music, everything in this scene is wonderful.

Hanna Schwarz, mezzo, is another relatively weak link. Her voice is weak and fails in the lower side of her register, becoming throaty. It sounds really tired and the vibratto is a bit too wide. She is clearly passed her prime. On the other hand she is depicting an old man so it isn't entirely inappropriate.

The next scene (tableaux five) is the one on the cover picture, and features an argument between The Demon and Al Kasim. It is musically spectacular, very lively and dramatic.

Tableaux six brings us the girl, Badi'at. It's the same Laura Aikin who was Manon in Boulevard Solitude and did very well in that performance, so I have good expectations. Beautiful scenario with a huge red flower (I mean, really huge, she's asleep inside the flower). The scene is phenomenal, the best one so far, with a trio (Badi'at, Al Kasim, and The Demon) and the visual side is a pleasure with the huge flower, a moon, an arch in the sky on top of which The Demon is perched. Laura is very good. The scene turns weird when out of the blue Al Kasim tries to rape Badi'at.http://www.talkclassical.com/images/smilies/eek.gif She cries for help, thieves in very creative costumes come in, steal the bird, capture the girl and Al Kasim. Dijab makes his entrance, and bass Günter Missenhardt is another strong link.

There is long narration which dampens the action a bit. Theatricality and pace are a bit uneven in this opera. Tableaux six is 21 minutes long, while the next one - a monologue by Al Radshi - is only 4'36" long. And it is beautiful too, with ominous music punctuated by interesting percussion and weird animal sounds.

Tableaux eight is bizarre. The Demon is all bloody. Badi'at and Al Kasim tend to his wounds. She tears up her skirt to make bandages, revealing nice legs (and later some cleavage too). Mr. Ainsley continues to be outstanding, he is by far the best artist in this production. They steal the chest (that's why the Demon was bloody, it was the aftermath of their raid).

Tableaux nine unfortunately brings back the annoying contralto. It is done in purpose, the vocal writing I suppose does call for some strident singing, but it is really unpleasant, I'm telling you. This guy has a screeching falsetto and it really hurts my ears.

There is a very beautiful tenor-baritone friendship duo by the demon and Al Kasim. It's a farewell. He leaves. Too bad. Gone is the best singer.

The two lovers are thrown into the well. We get another interesting orchestral intermezzo, full of sounds of wind and animals. The Wiener Philharmoniker by the way is its usual terrific self. Then the two lovers sing a very nice duo, inside the well. Laura's acting is great.

Oops, the Demon is back, good. He wasn't gone after all. He rescues the two lovers from the well, and sings beautifully some more. There is lots of pathos in this scene - a great one. By the way, Matthias Goerne's singing does get better as time goes by; he is projecting a little better after he warmed up, and he does have good musicality. The vocal writing for this part is truly wonderful. It rarely gets this good in contemporary opera.

This ends tableaux nine, the best one so far (and longest with more than 31 minutes, but unlike tableaux six it doesn't feel long since it is so varied and beautiful).

Tableaux ten is when the hoopoe is released. Very interesting orchestration, and a chorus. Then, the very lively short ballet of the gnomes when they open the chest. This is interrupted by the arrival of Badi'at and Al Kasim who say the magic words that make the gnomes stop. The two bad sons' game is exposed. They get banned. We're getting ready for the finale.

Tableaux 11, The Twilight Hour (aptly named - Henze's last moments of stage writing - [Note - actually, not, since schigolch has clarified that he continued to write for the stage after all, see below]).

Al Kasim can't get married to Badi'at yet, he had promised to take the Demon to the tree where the Apple of Life grows. He leaves. His father and Badi'at look at him leaving, walk to the line of horizon, have their backs to the public. It is very beautiful orchestration, with bells and percussion. Blue lights. The hoopoe is seen on the top of the arch. Sublime. Purely orchestral music, of the spectacular kind.

The end.

Wow. Wow.

This is really good, folks.

A very, very good opera. A great orchestra. An excellent staging. Mostly good singers (with a few that weren't as good).

I'm sad that Mr. Henze doesn't want to compose more operas [see correction below] (he is really, really old now). He is certainly among the select small group of excellent contemporary composers who in my opinion have a chance at immortality. In a couple of centuries (if humankind is still around) he is the kind of composer that will be remembered. He makes an appearance on stage and takes a bow, to wild ovation.

Highly recommended.