Posted on Mon, 2014-01-27 11:19 by David Pountney

I went into the rehearsal room this afternoon and found myself sandwiched between choristers singing off-stage music, and simultaneously watching the action as it unfolded – for them for the first time – on the rehearsal stage. I realised once again, as I soaked up their reactions, amused, shocked, puzzled, intrigued, that Manon is really quite an extreme piece. Manon is a very young woman who allows herself to be – well – is abducted the right word? – let’s say diverted by an obsessive young man who was studying for the priesthood (we know we are in trouble already!), but when he runs out of money Manon shows herself to be a resourceful seller of, well finally all that she has: her body. As one of the young women who were interviewed as part of the making of our new opera Anon remarked: “Its my body, it’s their money. What’s wrong with that?”

There may be quite a lot wrong with that when the subject is the invention of men with a not necessarily stable view of sexuality. What kind of men would those be? The scandalous novel was written by an Abbé, and the opera of course composed by Puccini whose heroines tell a particularly acute story about his own relations with women. They are either awesome, overpowering dragons like Turandot (i.e. his wife!) or vulnerable, pathetic figures like Mimì in La bohème or Liu in Turandot – i.e. lowly figures like the house-maid with whom he had a traumatic affair. (She committed suicide.) Polish Director Mariusz Trelinski, who is the artistic director of the opera in Warsaw, is by training a film director, and his interpretation is a highly intelligent one: Manon is a male fantasy, a projection of male desires and reveries. These fantasies take two different forms. One is the obsessive erotic dreams of the theology student Des Grieux – whose readiness to relapse is perhaps all too understandable. The other is the much more sinister predatory lusts of the elderly lecher Geronte, who has the money to buy what he wants and expects to get it without compromise. Between these two stands the cynical manipulator – her brother – a pimp for whom money is more concrete than any dream.  

Between these two male fantasies, where do we find the real Manon? With difficulty. Perhaps we have more chance in Henze’s 20th century retelling of the story, Boulevard Solitude. The title suggests the emotional impersonality and coldness of the modern city, and in this context we can perhaps better understand the power that Manon, and all the other so-called fallen women have. She exercises the liberated independent sensual authority of the cat. All want to touch her, to embrace her, to feel her, and she can offer this sensation without restraint, but with an absolutely impervious sense of ownership. At any second, this modern Manon can walk away with a twirl of her tail.

The Manon story is inevitably about exploitation, about grooming, about vulnerable victims and powerful predators. But it is also about the inescapable fact that once violence is ruled out as a regulator of sexual affairs, women like Manon can exert a formidable power. They have something many men want, and are prepared to go to enormous lengths to obtain. A falling woman may bring down an Empire in her train.

Meanwhile, it’s always fascinating to watch another director at work – there are not often two directors in one room! Mariusz is a bundle of energy, constantly talking, giving notes, and steering the singers’ minutest gestures. He clearly has a camera’s eyes’ view of each movement that the singer makes, and at least in these two pieces he has a really sensitive feeling for the sensuality of his female characters. He composes his scenes, visually and musically, like a cinematographer, and I think that after the performances, we will all want to watch the DVD!

Book Tickets for Manon Lescaut Boulevard Solitude Anon