fri 19/07/2024

American Lulu, Young Vic | reviews, news & interviews

American Lulu, Young Vic

American Lulu, Young Vic

A reworking of an operatic classic adds nothing and loses so much of the original

Southern belle: Angel Blue has a red hot go at making Neuwirth's heroine believable

We all know the drill: Wedekind’s Lulu is a page men have written on through the centuries, the canvas on which they have painted their desires, the feminine void they have filled. The patriarchy have appropriated her, and the perverts, and now it’s contemporary composer Olga Neuwirth’s turn.

Neuwirth’s reworking of Berg’s unfinished opera (itself an adaptation of Wedekind’s Lulu plays) purports to voice the unvoiced, to empower the heroine to wrest her story out of the hands of men. What it actually does is add yet another palimpsest-layer to an already overladen archetype, denying Lulu her humanity once again, but this time in the name of emancipation.

American Lulu hasn’t much to say about Lulu, and still less to say about America

Taking advantage of Berg’s incomplete Act III, Neuwirth substitutes the traditional Friedrich Cerha performing edition with her own jazz-fuddled rewriting, ripping up Berg’s elegant palindrome of an ending and replacing it with a baffling musical revenge-fantasy in which Lulu claims the phallic gun and murders her lovers, killing with them (one supposes) the oppressive forces of racism, sexism and capitalism. Neuwirth relocates the action to mid-century America, using Martin Luther King and Rosa Parkes as sonic and emotional background music. The result is not so much of the period as in it; Lulu is a southern civil rights activist in the Sixties just as Lulu at a fancy-dress party might be a lion or Marilyn Monroe.

The dialogue of Wedekind’s Lulu plays has been described as “unnatural, stylised, and at times even absurd”. The only compliment I can pay Neuwirth is that her libretto for Act III lives up in every way to the original. Her hack job on Acts I and II is rather less faithful however, cutting apparently arbitrary chunks of plot and music and hoping that enough of the audience is familiar with the original to be able to fill in the blanks (the hordes who left mid-show evidently weren’t). Henry James might have proved the intensifying potential of the ellipsis, but Neuwirth hasn’t got his touch.

The world premiere production of American Lulu at Berlin’s Komische Oper was a flop. This current production by John Fulljames is the second, and proof that the problems are really with the piece and not just the presentation. Fulljames takes advantage of the endlessly flexible Young Vic space to create an appealing quasi-cabaret with Brechtian onstage dressing area, moving Lulu in and out of sight behind dangling bead curtains that turn us into imaginative voyeurs. Projected animations (Finn Ross) are a major mis-step however, offering a comic-strip reduction of missing scenes (including a mystifying Team America-esque puppet-rape of Eleanor (the Countess Geschwitz of this version), seemingly standing in for the cholera episode of the original.

Neuwirth’s score, while lush in brass and wind, is melodically angular and sits awkwardly for the voice. Angel Blue’s Lulu (pictured above) makes you long to hear her sing the Berg straight, glistening-pure at the top and committing even to the most outlandish idiocies of the libretto. Physically she’s not entirely at ease, but then it’s hard to see how she could be, given the paradoxes of character Neuwirth’s reworking have created. Meaner and more nakedly manipulative than her original, this wild child has nothing to redeem her. Whether we learn more from a wicked woman who vanquishes her male foes than a victimised woman ultimately destroyed by them is moot.

Transforming Geschwitz into a jazz singer (Jacqui Dankworth, condemned to sing every line into a Brechtian microphone, trailing its flaccid little tail around the stage) allows Neuwirth to incorporate the bluesy sensibility that becomes the most American thing about the show, but meshes poorly with the rest of the musical fabric. The London Sinfonietta play loudly throughout under Gerry Cornelius, sacrificing line for precision and nuance for emphasis. Paul Curievici’s Photographer and Robert Winslade Anderson’s Clarence cope well over it, but Donald Maxwell’s lack of vocal focus slips over into his characterisation too, rendering Dr Bloom (pictured left with Blue) curiously passive.

American Lulu hasn’t much to say about Lulu, and still less to say about America. Civil rights, female emancipation, sexual morality and capitalist exploitation might make for good operatic buzzwords in the contemporary opera house, but they make for a pretty terrible evening.

Neuwirth's Lulu is a civil rights activist just as Lulu at a fancy-dress party might be a lion or Marilyn Monroe


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