Two Musical Manons – Lothar Koenigs on Puccini and Henze

Posted on Llun, 2014-02-10 12:28 by Opera Explorer

Earlier this week I caught up with Lothar Koenigs following the dress rehearsal of Manon Lescaut, to ask him what audiences can look forward to in the music of Puccini and Henze, the composer of Boulevard Solitude, a contemporary resetting of the Manon story. Although the two operas take very different approaches to Prevost’s tale of lost innocence and the downfall of the heroine and her lover, Des Grieux, there are several similarities between them, as Lothar explains. ‘Just as Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first big success, so Boulevard Solitude was Henze’s opera breakthrough. I think that Puccini really found his style and approach to drama in Manon.’  It is in this opera that many of the Italian composer’s trademark gestures first take shape – not least his gift for great tunes and his penchant for heartbreaking duets: ‘For example, the Act Two scene between Manon and her brother [when she finds out that her former lover, Des Grieux, has become a gambler to try and find a way back to her] is just heartbreaking,’ while later in the same act, the ecstatic reunion of the lovers is framed by soaring declarations of passion. Being a lover of Wagner’s operas himself, Lothar was keen to point out the huge influence of the German composer: not least the impact of Tristan und Isolde, where the central characters abandon themselves to the throes of passion against a shifting backdrop of sensual harmony. Manon Lescaut also begins with a typically Puccinian explosion of activity.  Instead of the traditional nineteenth-century ‘Overture’, with its summary of the ‘big tunes’ of the evening, we are plunged straight into the action: the first sounds that you will hear are babbling trills in the flutes, festive fanfares in the brass, and exuberant runs in the strings, conjuring up the hustle and bustle of city life.  From the very first notes, Puccini knows exactly how to move his audience to tears, as well as how to entertain them: as Lothar says, ‘Only Puccini could start an opera like this – and it’s fantastic!’
As for Boulevard Solitude, Lothar has never forgotten the impression of hearing the music of Henze’s opera for the first time in a Frankfurt production in the 1990s: the opera begins with a dextrously orchestrated prelude for nine percussionists, and thereafter the score shifts through a kaleidoscopic range of musical styles. ‘From that moment on, I couldn’t believe the colours that were coming from the pit!’ As Assistant Conductor Tim Burke says in this audio introduction to Boulevard Solitude, some people may be put off by Henze’s status as a mid-twentieth century composer, fearing that there will be no discernible melodies, or that the music will be ‘inaccessible’. But Lothar was keen to emphasise that ‘For a composer of his generation, his style is practically ‘easy listening!’ He was actually criticised by many of his contemporaries, like Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, for his ‘singable melodies’, but he always remained true to himself.’ Henze’s score draws on a plethora of styles that are actually far closer to our own 21st-century soundscape than we might imagine, ranging from jazz to cabaret, to 20th-century atonal experimentation. Like Puccini, he draws on the legacy of Wagner in his compositions too.

The two composers take very different approaches to telling the story of Prevost’s 1731 novel – a book which caused a huge scandal when it was published. According to Lothar, ‘In the music of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, I think the focus is really on Manon, whereas in Boulevard Solitude, it is all about the social descent of Armand Des Grieux, Manon’s lover.’ Arguably, Puccini’s luscious tunes could be seen to sanitise the corruption at the heart of Prevost’s novel with a melodic veneer: above the superficial glamour and titillation of the young heroine’s misdemeanours, there lies a seamy world of pimping, grooming and exploitation in which Manon’s own brother sells her to the richest buyer. Henze’s approach is different, however.  As Lothar explains, ‘He had a deep desire to expose social problems and to hold up a mirror to the world’, and this is reflected in Henze’s unflinching portrayal of the dark forces at work in Boulevard Solitude. On some level, though, perhaps both of these operas depicting Fallen Women chart morally ambiguous musical territory, because it seems that whether you choose to immerse yourself in the Puccini’s heartfelt melodies, and/or to explore Henze’s kaleidoscopic musical terrain, you will be sure to enjoy yourself. As Lothar says, ‘People will have a luscious opera experience’ – whatever the moral implications!
Sophie Rashbrook