20 February 2014
Following the opening night of Manon Lescaut at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Chief Executive and Artistic Director David Pountney discusses seeing opera through 21st century eyes.
WNO’s production takes place in a station. Could you explain the idea behind this?
The original story begins at a coaching Inn – so a point of arrival and departure. WNO’s production stays very close to this idea, except that here the “place of transit” has become, very clearly, a railway station, and the flashing lights, deployed tactfully between scenes, cleverly evoke the arrival and departure of trains. This is not a gratuitous idea, as also in the original it is clear that then, as now, coaching inns, bus stations, railway stations are typically places where young and vulnerable people may be trapped and subverted. Such places are very often referred to in contemporary parlance as “urban deserts” – places which may be crowded with people but which nonetheless have a desolate atmosphere of loneliness and misery. It is exactly in such a “desert” that Manon and Des Grieux end up at the close of their tragic story. It is a place where Manon, the subject of des Grieux’s erotic fantasy, fragments and vanishes – truly the end of his dream.
The very mention of the word “coaching inn” illustrates the difficulty of period authenticity. Today it instantly conjures up a romanticised view of the past with its carriages, horses, fanfares of coaching horns, - all those attributes evoked by a thousand period prints reproduced on a thousand pub walls, exuding that sense of bogus jollity and period charm that belongs to a pseudo-Dickensian view of the past.
In fact coaching inns, just like stations today, were notorious places full of pick-pockets, prostitutes, beggars, thieves, and generally disreputable riff-raff, and where you were highly likely to put down your delicate shoe in a pile of horse shit.
Commentators have frequently complained that Puccini’s last act setting of Manon in a (non-existant) desert in Louisiana is absurd. Re-imagining this “desert” as a place of urban desolation is a thoroughly intelligent response to Puccini’s original idea, and one that is executed with poetic imagination. This of course leads us directly to the third opera in our series, whose title Boulevard Solitude precisely captures this notion of the desolation and loneliness which can be found at the heart of seemingly bustling cities.
It has been said that Mariusz Trelinski’s production of Manon Lescaut is a salacious interpretation of Puccini’s opera. What are your thoughts on this?
WNO has just spent much time and effort marketing a series of three operas under the banner headline of “Fallen Women”. I cannot actually think of any clearer indication of what the content of these three operas could be. Somebody complained about there being “gratuitous sex” in the production of Manon Lescaut, but since this opera starts with the planned abduction of a young girl by two different men, one of whom she sleeps with for love, and the other for money, lots of money, it is difficult to see how any sex could be gratuitous in the context of this story.
Some of the responses to Manon Lescaut at WNO would seem to indicate that people feel that opera, or perhaps especially operas by Puccini, should be accompanied by pretty pictures. Now that we have surtitles, no-one has the excuse that they don’t know what the words mean: they are printed up for all to see. So consider for a moment this exchange from Act 1 of Manon Lescaut. Lescaut, Manon’s elder brother, has tried to set up Manon’s abduction by the elderly rich debauchee Geronte, but Manon surprises them by impulsively running off with the poor student Des Grieux. Lescaut, disappointed that he has lost the profit he made by selling his sister, nonetheless counsels patience. They will catch her in Paris when the student has run out of money. The two men have this exchange:
Lescaut: I see Manon's charms have awakened a fatherly love within you.
Geronte: Exactly so.
Lescaut: How to say it... From a respectful son, here is my advice: Paris! If Manon is there, then she is not lost to us yet. A student's wallet soon empties, and Manon doesn't want to live in poverty. She will happily change her student for a palace. You will be father to a wonderful daughter. Sir, your family will be complete.
An opera which contains the suggestion that a family is complete when the “father” is sleeping with the “daughter” cannot truthfully be represented by “pretty pictures” of an elegant past. The issues of trafficking, abuse, corruption of youth and “grooming” which this suggests are urgent and topical problems in today’s society. To hide these issues under a cloak of prettified gentility would be a great betrayal of the art form of opera and the huge heritage of deeply felt music which it incorporates. This music was intended to ennoble our minds and our souls, and to do so by awakening us to the truth around us, not submerging it under a dubious blanket of genteel decoration. Puccini’s inspiration deserves better than that.
What do you say to the critical responses that opera should be set in the original period intended?
I suggest you should talk to Puccini about that – you might need a medium! He took a story which was written in 1733 by the Abbé Prévost, and which is originally set in the 18th century, but Puccini’s music is unmistakeably the opulent, romantic music of the late 19th century. So Puccini himself has updated the story with his music by at least 150 years. Then you, the audience, update the story yourselves quite instinctively with your 21st century eyes and ears. Even if you look at an eighteenth century painting, which has not been tampered with or changed, you yourself will change it by your very different aesthetic sense, moral code, aural and visual experiences. An 18th century setting, replicated by a 21st century designer for a 21st century audience, will always feel like a quote, or an imitation, and be utterly different from the experience of 18th century reality as experienced by the real people of that time. Nothing can actually “remain in that period” even were you so mistaken as to try.
Henze’s modern retelling of the Manon story, Boulevard Solitude shows us that the perilous journey of a young woman into the “Jungle of the Cities” as Brecht described it, is as valid and as provocative today as it was for the Abbé Prévost in 1733. Even the subject of prostitution itself is something that drives European societies today in wildly different directions – towards acceptance and legalisation in Germany and Holland, whilst in France it is now newly illegal to be a client – yet another misguided intervention that effectively drives the activity underground and further into the hands of criminal and exploitative elements.
It’s exciting I think for the enduring value of opera, and an important justification of its continuance as a major European cultural art-form, that it not only gives delight and pleasure, but also stirs our emotions and our imaginations about topics that are still essential debating points and subjects of concern to contemporary society, as they were for the societies and times that created them.
We have reinforced this aspect of its contemporary relevance not only through the way in which Trelinski has perceptively directed Manon Lescaut and Boulevard Solitude, but also with the creation by our Youth and Community programme of an entirely new music theatre work, Anon. To create this, our team worked with young people, many from immigrant communities, in Birmingham, and also interviewed many young sex workers in the city to get their perspective on these issues. Errollyn Wallen, one of the leading young British composers, has created a score around the results of this research, and the result shows yet again that music and theatre can bring the power of imagination to bear on the most intractable and acute problems of our time.
The Manon story is a story for all time, as is the music of Puccini, Henze and Errolyn Wallen. WNO urges you not to shut opera up in a box of heritage nostalgia, but acknowledge its power to speak for societies of today, as well as so powerfully evoking the societies of the past. That is a key to its richness and power as an art-form.