Mariusz Treliński is Artistic Director of Poland’s Theatr Wielki – National Opera. He first made his name as an award-winning young filmmaker in Poland in the 1990s, directing Farewell to Autumn amongst other films. Mariusz’s opera debut came in 1999 with a highly acclaimed production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Many diverse operas have followed on the international stage, and Mariusz is now firmly established as an opera director. He has retained a particular love for Puccini, with further productions of La bohème (2006), Turandot (2011) and now Manon Lescaut for Welsh National Opera (in a co-production with Teatr Wielki, Warsaw and La Monnaie, Brussels).
Alongside the Puccini, Mariusz is also directing a new production of Hans Werner Henze’s take on the Manon story, Boulevard Solitude, as part of WNO’s ‘Fallen Women’ season. During rehearsals, he took time out to talk with Steph Power about the two productions and his vision of Manon.
Steph Power: You’re here at WNO to direct two very different composers’ perspectives on Manon’s story; Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Henze’s Boulevard Solitude. What’s your starting point regarding her character?
Mariusz Treliński: Each time I have directed Manon Lescaut it has brought deeper insights, but for me the most important thing in both the Puccini and the Henze is a certain picture of Manon, and her name is the key. In French, the word ‘Manon’ consists of an impossibility: ‘ma’ means ‘have’ or ‘my’ – ‘mine’: ‘I want to have something’. But ‘non’ means ‘no’ – ‘I can’t’. So together: ‘you can never have me’. She’s ‘Ma-non’, an impossibility, someone with a thousand faces. You cannot define who she is.
How do you go about creating that on stage?
It’s very difficult to play as well as to create this kind of character! I’m working with the singers to create certain effects to show that Manon has many faces and reflections – that Manon is what men want to see in her. This perspective is very risky of course, because the Puccini was written at the end of the 19th century – a period which was very chauvinistic, when it was always about the woman in a man’s world and where women were often punished if they didn’t conform. You can see this in Verdi’s earlier opera, La traviata, where Violetta has to die so that society can breathe again. Of course I hate this chauvinism because I see it completely differently from a contemporary perspective – but the story is like it is. So what I’m trying to build with Manon is not reality, it’s men’s obsession – and also men’s fear. I’m not saying who Manon ‘really is’, I’m looking carefully at the perspective of the men – ‘if I see you and I don’t know who you are, but I think you are like this or are like that, it’s my imagination about you’.
So Manon is a male conceit, effectively meaning different things to the different men around her?
Yes. For Geronte, she’s like a luxury toy. He’s played with Manon as if she’s a plastic doll and he’s more concerned with the amount of money he has to pay to be with her. He’s not engaged emotionally. For her brother Lescaut, it’s similar but different because – looking realistically from our perspective today – he’s a kind of pimp; someone who sells women, who treats them like their own property. So Lescaut takes care of Manon, but as he would a good horse. In his hands, she is someone to sell, to market for the best price, and there’s a real sorrow about this. Then suddenly, in des Grieux’s eyes, Manon is a vision of love, she’s his fantasy of the perfect woman. And, to be honest, whichever Manon she is, she cannot be as the men want. Obviously no-one can be a toy because you have your own life and feelings, you cannot just be a thing for sale, and you cannot just be an idealised vision. These pieces are part of a puzzle and together they build a picture of Manon – something which happens on the stage, but it doesn’t happen because it’s Ma-non, impossibility! That’s the main idea of this production. To show this, for example, I use doubles of Manon on stage.
Yes, I’d read that you’d broken up Manon into different parts as a character. That also strikes me as an interesting way of showing that she’s something but she’s also nothing.
Exactly – let’s talk about these different parts! In Puccini’s opera, I was trying to build Manon firstly in the eyes of a group of men, then we see Geronte’s perspective, then Lescaut’s, then that of des Grieux. Then we have the final Act 4, which for me is a very challenging moment because Puccini takes us into the desert – a place like nowhere. I always try to treat opera libretti very seriously, especially from a psychoanalytic point of view. So here, what does the desert symbolise?
I think at the end of the story Puccini takes a different perspective completely, taking us out of the world. We are removed from one of the most important discourses of the opera, which is about money and love; about the tension between these two things, and the question how can we have both? Suddenly, in the desert, Puccini tries to see this problem from the outside – as if from a different dimension. In this production of Manon I have set the story in contemporary times. The place of action is a railway station which is not defined because it’s a story about travelling. In the plot we go to le Havre, to Paris and to the desert. But for me it’s a metaphorical journey into our minds, going from station to station, deeper and deeper into addiction and a loss of independence. Des Grieux dissolves into Manon, becoming weaker and weaker. At the end of Act 3 it’s like the end of the ‘real’ story because both characters ‘die’ – that is, they look as if they do; it’s not staged concretely but what’s important is the feeling that they are dead. We now see several Manons, each following the other, and at that moment des Grieux becomes surrounded by pieces of his past, of his memory – the Manon who was loving, the Manon who was provoking, tempting – all her shadows.
How, then, do you see Act 4?
Suddenly the last act comes as a life after life – an Elysium. Act 4 for me is the most important part of the production because I put the pieces together – actually, you can never put the pieces together, but I try to see the story as if in a broken mirror. You see thousands of reflections and you know the story will never finish. It’s beautiful in Prévost’s book that, at the end of the story, Manon is dead and des Grieux lies on her grave for several days [both operas are based on Abbé Prévost’s short novel, L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, published in 1731]. He cannot let go of her – he’s also half dead. For me this moment in the desert was the inspiration to build a more contemporary sense of those dualities – love or not love; love or money; whether Manon is angel or demon – because all these expressions are so naïve. Here, suddenly we just see what is there: the man and his fantasy of Manon – and that this dialogue will never end. I close the opera with the infinity and the circle.
It seems you’re suggesting that des Grieux rather than Manon is the centre of the drama – because it’s in his mind that all this is happening. Is that fair?
It’s exactly what you are saying, it’s des Grieux’s perspective, his subjective narrative, and it’s happening in his head. I go even further with the Henze, in Boulevard. Here, in this libretto, the main word for me is Orpheo, which des Grieux mentions obsessively in the second part of the opera – his idea of him and Manon that ‘I’m Orpheo, you’re my Euridice’. Let’s forget about the naïve interpretation of the Orpheo story – that story of going to hell in order to bring somebody back from death – but look closer at it. What does this actually mean for us? It’s about somebody who cannot let go of their relationship with someone who’s dead. It’s about somebody who’s looking back, looking to the past, but trying to do something that’s impossible. Because the paradox in the Orpheo story is that you can look back but you cannot look back; you can take Euridice from Hades if you never look back, but the only way to take Euridice from Hades is to go back into the past – which is looking back!
Yes it’s impossible isn’t it? And this creates an existential dilemma.
Exactly yes. It’s cruel and clever because it means that we are trapped emotionally in one place, unable to go forwards or backwards. It’s like in Prévost’s novel – you are with Manon, lying on the grave. You cannot go forward and you cannot go back. And for me, the Henze story, it’s the combination of a circle, with Eurydice situated all the time in the bar, and with the action going forwards and backwards, as if scrolling through a DVD. Henze sets up and analyses that backwards-forwards situation again and again, constantly trying to understand what’s impossible to understand: who is this person? And once again, her name is ‘Ma-non’. Once again we have this impossibility of understanding what is impossible. And for me, Henze’s story is really Orpheo’s; somebody who is trying obsessively to go back and solve a situation which cannot be changed because it has happened.
I understand that the two productions will be utilising the same or very similar sets. Can you say something about that?
Yes, this was David Pountney’s proposition. In the Henze, we have a railway station once again, but different in that it’s like different parts of an organisation – it’s partly a station and partly a bar, and there’s also an apartment – it’s difficult to describe! But the middle part is the bar on a station and in this place we find somebody who cannot go home; he cannot stop to sleep because he is still attached to Manon as if through an umbilical chord. I understand that this interpretation of the Henze is quite radical, but I always deeply try to read and understand the libretto. And all this information is there. Why is Orpheo mentioned so many times? It really means something, especially with Henze’s music, which is very hallucinogenic, like a drug or an altered reality.
It’s very obvious reading this libretto that Henze’s story is not intended to be realistic, that it’s a kind of hallucinogenic subjective journey into the mind. But what’s interesting here – which is very contemporary and makes me very happy – is that 90% of libretti are very naïve; with Manon Lescaut the deeper subject is fantastic but the way the story is written is naïve. But with Boulevard Solitude, it’s different because Henze knows this and he’s written a libretto which is sarcastic – it’s ironic, it’s grotesque. For example, he often utilises poetic lines in certain rhythms to create repetitions which point out the stupidity of life – as if in a soap-opera. He uses irony to create distance so we can see that what we feel many times to be tragic is really just grotesque. Because the story of Manon and des Grieux happens everywhere; the story between men and women has something impossible about it. There is a gravitational power that pulls us together but a power that says this is impossible, that we can never understand each other. What’s fascinating is that we really want to understand each other because we cannot live without that. Of course, we know after Freud, Jung, Lacan, all these people, that this is far more complicated than a simplistic question, say, of intuition versus logic. Because all men are partly female and all women partly male inside. But generally this meeting between the two sexes is an unfinished conversation and these operas are also about that. About our wish to have somebody to really be with – ‘it’s Manon and only Manon and we’ll be together away from the world around us’ – this is naïve and wishful thinking.
You also referred to a dialogue between love and money?
Yes, this is another very modern aspect of both libretti. Of course we all want to be idealistic and choose love, but life is not so simple. Manon is saying ‘what’s the problem? I was with a different man, it was just for a few hours, now we have money – let’s spend time together now and have fun.’ I think Manon was very shocking in Prévost’s time! For us in Poland, when it came out, it would have been what we call a ‘pink book’ – of erotic perversion. And it was taboo, especially for Catholics.
But Manon is saying what many women and men are saying now, two hundred years later; ‘I’m sorry, please be relaxed – I go to the city and do business, then I come back to be with you.’ If you ask me in this interview which I think is more important, love or money, I would say love. But the demands of real life are such that in theory we say one thing, and in practice, it’s completely different. I think this discourse is very interesting.
Obviously the whole area of the ‘fallen woman’ in opera is a key one, and many people are asking, what might this look like from a woman’s point of view? As you say, the whole social context is now so different from when Prévost, and later, Puccini were writing – even from the 1950s of the Henze.
Of course I’m limited in opera because I can only add pictures and counterpoint to the music – the story is like it is. Puccini’s story is beautiful, very emotional, but far more sentimental. Henze is very intelligent, colder, but very deep and radical. I really love what he did because there aren’t so many operas talking about liberty on that artistic level. I started out as a director in movies. So what I’m trying to say, I say through pictures. Of course through the eye, by the position of the body, say, you can create distance, you can have ironic contact. In the Henze, visually, we have the man in the railway station with circles and circles of people going around him that he cannot stop – the policemen, the prostitutes, the businessmen – whilst he is going forwards and backwards. But with Puccini, it’s like a line with many perspectives and suddenly the broken mirror. Also, with Puccini, you’ll see that I use the language of art in ways I think all people can enjoy – you don’t need to know anything of the history. For example, there are things from Hitchcock’s Vertigo – like what does it mean to watch a woman in a frame? If I want to say something about love and woman being only man’s imagination I often use a frame to show that it’s me watching her. That was a fantastic idea of Hitchcock’s – to use mirrors and frames to call attention to perspective.
I understand that you draw on film techniques a great deal in your opera productions?
Yes, I cut by light.
Ok. And I believe you’ve mentioned David Lynch in relation to Manon. Can you say how he’s inspired your production of the Puccini?
Absolutely, with David Lynch you’ll see many things here, especially Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. In Mulholland Drive there’s a very clear moment where we have two women and, just like we’ve been discussing, a ‘true’ story – but we don’t know if it’s ‘real’ or a schizophrenic picture from our mind.
So, Lynch’s surrealism is important?
Yes, that was my first inspiration; that Manon can be different characters – and the idea of Act 4 comes from here, as one Manon comes to replace another. But Lynch’s story is far more black and white – she is an angel and a demon. In our production, Manon is not judged – I think one of the lessons of these operas is not to judge her or to say who’s right or what’s more important, love or money. I’ve thrown out this kind of situation. I see just two people who want to build something together and they cannot – both are trying to find the solution. There’s also a complicated Oedipus triangle in the piece which is to do with Geronte: in simple terms, in many films about the mafia, say, we have a young naïve boy who wants to be with a girl, but the girl is in the hands of a very old, very powerful man who is very dangerous – if the boy touches the woman he’s shot. This has multiple meanings and symbolism. In Prévost’s book, we have the same scenario. There is the father, then we have a young des Grieux who wants to be with Manon, but he feels afraid. Fear is symbolised by the power of father – like in Don Giovanni with the Commendatore, that position of father, of God – someone who’s powerful.
Let’s say that Geronte has this Oedipal triangle. He symbolises the evil powers in charge of Manon. In the movies the scenario goes, ‘I’d be with you if it weren’t for the mafia or the father or the law or the church’ and so on. And what we do with Geronte – you remember Denis Hopper who played in Lynch’s Blue Velvet?
Yes – he wears the oxygen mask and takes it on and off to sniff at the woman if I remember correctly?
That’s it – we are doing a similar scenario with Geronte. He’s a king of life, a rich and powerful man. We never decide if he’s mafioso, but he can do anything, he can have all the girls – except that he’s impotent. We use the same element from the David Lynch movie, so he’s sniffing and touching Manon but never using her. By that I was trying to suggest something about that fear perhaps – that ‘Manon is not with me because the most powerful and angry man is keeping guard. If not for him then it would be simple.’ And Geronte is like a master of ceremonies in his own house – a theatre within a theatre – who plays with the doll of Manon, trying to turn the tables on her. In this production, Manon has all the men in her hands and now in this theatre ‘we can have the mannikin of Manon – now she’s ours, now she will say yes.’ That is the man’s revenge on the woman. Of course you can go deeper still but the most simple story is just somebody who’s really on their guard, who is dangerous and very strong and, at the moment of this turning point, we are trying to show that Manon is really just plastic – that of course it’s our reflection; we project her but from different perspectives. And maybe that’s nothing – maybe just wooden parts.
It seems we’re talking about power at the end of the day – the battles between the men as to who gets Manon –
– yes it’s a battle! We set her up, we fight for her, we take her, we kiss her, we touch her. You know, that was the perspective of the 19th century but what I am trying to say is that this is not a story ‘about’ Manon, it’s only men’s hallucination in a men’s world – and often it’s a men’s problem because if you want to define what love does you cannot. Roland Barthes wrote A Lover’s Discourse, which was fantastic. He asked what love means; he pointed out that if you live in a city, there are millions of people. Of those, hypothetically one hundred or so can interest you on the basis of type – colour of hair or intelligence, say. But how does it happen that from this million we choose this one hundred, and from this one hundred, one person just like that and say – ‘yes I love her’. This is exactly what Shakespeare wrote – love is like an elixir that changes what we see with our eyes – there’s no logic to it. We use the perspective of the frame and we see Manon – but it’s not Manon, it’s just my eye.
So we’re back to it being the story of the gaze, not the ‘reality’ of Manon.
Yes – it’s about what men want to see.