sat 20/12/2014

Lulu, Welsh National Opera | Opera reviews, news & interviews

Lulu, Welsh National Opera

Berg's unfinished masterpiece in a stunning production under WNO's new director

Marie Arnet as Lulu in the good times: impeccably stylish, con bravuraClive Barda

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…

David Pountney's production feeds enthusiastically on the work’s excesses, stunning to look at, shattering to listen to

rating

5

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