Lulu, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews
Lulu, Welsh National Opera
Lulu, Welsh National Opera
Berg's unfinished masterpiece in a stunning production under WNO's new director
What-ifs and might-have-beens are usually as pointless in music as in any other walk of life. Still one can’t help wondering how Alban Berg would have completed – and, no less interesting, revised – his opera Lulu, if he hadn’t been stung by some philistine insect in the summer of 1935 and died of the resulting septicaemia that Christmas Eve, with the last act unfinished and barely half-orchestrated.
Berg’s earlier opera, Wozzeck, is taut and perfunctory, like the Büchner play it’s based on. Lulu, a setting of a pair of wordy plays by the proto-expressionist Frank Wedekind, is brilliant, prolix, endlessly fascinating, maddeningly confused and over-complicated. David Pountney’s dazzling new production for WNO, his first for the company since becoming its intendant, feeds enthusiastically on the work’s excesses, makes little serious attempt to sort out its muddles, but accepts it as the basis for a spectacular and unforgettable show, stunning to look at, shattering to listen to. Berg’s score is nobody’s easy ride: not the audience’s, certainly not the singers’ or players’. Yet the packed house clearly adored every long minute, and happily left their comprehension at the door.
The plot itself is simple enough. Lulu (the Earth Spirit of Wedekind’s first play) is a femme fatale who works her way through every man (and the occasional woman) she encounters: a sort of girl Don Juan whose path, though, is strewn with the corpses of her discarded lovers. In his final act set in a London garret, Berg, who was obsessed with symmetries and hidden structures, brings back the prostitute Lulu’s husbands as avenging clients, the last of whom – the newspaper tycoon Dr.Schön reconfigured as Jack the Ripper – knifes her and her lesbian hanger-on to music last heard when she had murdered him an act-and-a-half earlier.
Lulu and the lesbian Countess Gewitz are discovered on a vast couch in the form of what looks like a grotesque naked body
The problems begin with the profusion of minor characters, and continue with the rambling verbosity of the libretto, which Berg himself drew more or less directly from Wedekind. Already in the first two long acts there are entire characters whose sole purpose seems to be to demonstrate that Lulu exerts her power over all sorts and conditions of men, from princes to footmen, athletes to intellectuals, schoolboys to transsexuals.
There then follows, at the start of the third act, a long and elaborate scene in a Paris salon which brings in seven or eight completely new roles and a profusion of fresh incident, largely irrelevant to the main narrative. Friedrich Cerha, whose completion of the final act has become standard, accepted this scene pretty much as Berg had drafted it, but Pountney and the conductor Lothar Koenigs have preferred a recent adaptation by Eberhard Kloke which compresses it into a kind of mobile form that allows cuts and simultaneities and speeds it up out of all measure. Lovers of textual purity are unlikely to applaud this device; lovers of good music theatre can only sigh with relief.
Pountney himself seizes on strong hints in Berg to turn this dramaturgical jungle into a visual and theatrical delight, marvellously designed by Johan Engels, Marie-Jeanne Lecca and Mark Jonathan. The menagerie of Wedekind’s prologue becomes a motif for the whole production, spawning some unforgettable animal masks and coloured costumes, if not always clarifying the action. Pountney picks up the merest Wagnerian hint in Wedekind’s title, Erdgeist, to link Lulu as Erde to her elderly tramp/lover Schigolch as Wotan, the Wanderer with a slouch hat and a patch over one eye. The mind boggles at where this parallel might lead the wandering interpretative mind; but luckily its attention is soon distracted by other matters.
David Pountney has never balked at sexual innuendo, and Lulu gives his predilection full and legitimate rein. The stage is strewn with anatomical detritus. Weird mannequins, all legs and buttocks, are caressed and manipulated, Lulu and the lesbian Countess Gewitz are discovered on a vast couch in the form of what looks like a grotesque naked body, and at the end of this scene Lulu herself – the wonderful Marie Arnet – completely disrobes to reveal something a good deal less grotesque. One shudders to think how this sequence might be revived in future times and places. But sufficient unto the day…
Above all, WNO is now blessed with an artistic director with strong musical genes. Pountney can read a score and knows how to manoeuvre singers on, off and around the stage with an ear to the pace and texture of the music. With all those characters constantly coming and going, Lulu is a death-trap for the usual cloth-eared opera director. But this staging hardly puts a foot wrong, for all the complexity of Engels’s fixed, shop-window set, an enormous chromium gantry round a central spiral staircase, up and down which exits and entries have to be – and are – timed to perfection. As a stage presentation of Berg’s music, what Wagner called deeds of music made visible, this could hardly be bettered, whatever the obscurities of narrative detail.
From the very first trombone theme, you know you’re in for a thrilling evening
At the centre musically are Arnet’s impeccably stylish, bravura performance as Lulu, and some stupendous orchestral playing under Koenigs. To call Lulu a difficult part would be like calling thirties Berlin an interesting city; not only is she on stage for almost the entire evening, but she has constantly to relate to each one of her motley array of fellow-characters, and withal she has to sing the most intricate coloratura in a complex musical idiom, while debasing herself morally, moving elegantly, and generally looking nice. There have been some – not many – great Lulus. Marie Arnet is surely one of them.
From the very first trombone theme, you know you’re in for a thrilling evening. The sheer sound of the orchestra in the prologue is as fine as anything I can remember in an opera pit, and Richard Angas’s Animal Tamer (later also Schigolch) is direct, resonant, utterly arresting. The enormous cast has hardly a weakness. Especially memorable are Julian Close’s Acrobat, a role hard to define but musically rich, Mark Le Brocq’s cleverly sung, wittily acted Painter/Negro, and Ashley Holland’s Schön (pictured above with Arnet), a sort of Berlinesque Citizen Kane, substantial in voice, physique and presence.
Peter Hoare’s Alwa, also very well sung, is perhaps too frail in portraiture; Natascha Petrinsky is a fine, watchable Geschwitz, a part, though, that is musically disappointing until her wonderful curtain lines at the end. Alan Oke’s villainous crocodile-Marquis is the one real positive among the thickets of the Paris scene. Patricia Orr copes well as the Schoolboy, a Cherubino role with, alas, not much Cherubino music. The rest is company work, brilliantly handled as always with WNO, polished and precise in every detail. It’s good to see them back on a creative track after those barren years.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?