sat 20/07/2024

Lulu, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Lulu, English National Opera

Lulu, English National Opera

Perfect rapport between stage and pit keeps tabs on William Kentridge's genius

Artist's muse: Lulu (Brenda Rae) and short-lived second husband the Painter (Michael Colvin)All images by Catherine Ashmore for ENO

After a day of sheer pain, would it be endless night or cathartic relief at ENO? Both, must be the answer, and much more, all at once.

Iconoclastic Frank Wedekind's "earth-spirit" Lulu, exploited as a street-child but now able to turn the tables for a while on male bourgeois weakness, lives through one horrible situation after another before dying at the hands of Jack the Ripper, but Alban Berg's never merely atonal score gives such transcendent warmth to the spell she casts just by being.

Has it ever sounded more grounded in its beauty, or more closely connected with the stage shenanigans, than it is here under Mark Wigglesworth, in what is – "tragically" might not be too strong a word – his last opera as ENO Music Director? And could anyone else rivet your attention quite so compellingly given the rival claims of genius artist-director William Kentridge's almost indigestible vision, the only possible supplanter of Richard Jones's unforgettable ENO predecessor (also enriched by Richard Stokes's acrid translation)?

Like Carmen, the operatic Lulu mustn't 'do' sex but be it Throughout Act One, it all seemed as if it might be too much. Compelling from the start is the kaleidoscope of video-projected, sometimes animated black-ink portraits over print, reworkings of German expressionist masterworks which just needed to speak for themselves to remind you that men had the upper hand in studying each other in the 1920s and 30s while women were still just sex-objects. But it could afford to settle for some of the often oblique action, where the comic-grotesque doesn't always have space to breathe, and frankly we don't need anything more during the first two interludes.

In fact I had to stop looking during the initial unfolding of the Mahlerian Adagio which represents the inexorable bond between Lulu and "the only man who ever loved me", Dr Schön. Not difficult to fix attention on the pit since Wigglesworth is in his element here, drawing the kind of deep sound from an ever more magnificent ENO Orchestra which first harrowed us when he came to the Coliseum to conduct Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for the first time in 2001.

Sarah Connolly and David Soar in ENO LuluThe spider-web of sound, though, quite different from Pappano's more lightly sensuous approach for Christof Loy's stripped-down Royal Opera Lulu, is only half the story. What we take for granted is the total music-theatre cohesion between voices and orchestra, which never failed us in the five previous productions Wigglesworth has conducted in his short-lived role. It reaches its apogee here, starting with the crisp delivery of David Soar's Animal-Tamer presenter. He's the first of many ludicrously self-important men in the opera, including the same singer's second role as athlete Rodrigo (pictured right with Sarah Connolly as Countess Geschwitz), a superbly relaxed physical as well as vocal performance.

Lulu herself has to be the lynchpin, a killingly demanding high coloratura role. No singers capable of its stratospheric demands are going to have a big voice, and Brenda Rae has to work all her resources to be heard in mid-range in the vast spaces of the Coliseum. But her musicianship and accuracy are just phenomenal, and what's more, she treads the fine line any Lulu must negotiate, but very few do, between knowingness and simply existing as love-object; like Carmen, the operatic Lulu mustn't "do" sex but be it. Not for Rae the implied blankness of the strange child-woman's reactions to the deaths of the men who kill themselves for her. There's an existential despair you really believe in, even if the men on stage don't notice it. And the last-act fall from Parisian society hostess to East End prostitute, where the real tragedy is having to sell what Lulu's always been able to give increasingly on her own terms, is as harrowing as it can be.

By this stage, Kentridge's bewilderingly rich design-concept, potent in its leitmotivic use of painted "heads" and giant hands, is perfectly fused with the interaction of characters (what the Germans call personenregie). Predictably, its apogee has been the rendering of the famous film sequence at the heart of the opera – unfathomably a visual blank in Jones's production – where the music is a perfect palindrome: again there are references to the masterworks of Weimar Germany, in this case recreation of scenes from Pabst's Wedekind-faithful silent film Pandora's Box. But no director just interested in the visuals would be able to order the salon mayhem (pictured below) of the first scene completed by Friedrich Cerha long after Berg's death in 1935 to give the opera the complete symmetry it always cried out for.Act 3 Scene 1 in ENO LuluThe company work here of ENO artists as socialites running to the roulette tables and hungry for Jungfrau shares which of course crash horribly operates at the highest level, as always in these last glory days of a company on the verge of Brexit-like self-harm; it's a shame that there are too many good cameos to mention. And from this point on, I think, we buy into the initially distracting Lulu double at the side(s) of the stage who's started out as ordered pianist before mirroring and reacting to the abysmal trajectory of the play-within-a-play's heroine. Whatever you think of this second protagonist, she's mesmerisingly played by actor/dancer Joanna Dudley.

Essentially these are the only two figures on stage allowed to develop. The men and the devoted lesbian Countess Geschwitz, lustrously sung as ever by Sarah Connolly in a satisying deconstruction of Coral Browne's character from The Killing of Sister George, all wear the same costumes throughout. The preposterousness and the pretensions of the male perspective are more strongly drawn than usual; even while Nicky Spence stylishly negotiates the cruelly high demands of Berg's seeming alter ego Alwa, Dr Schön's pettish son, you wince at the artistic terms in which he and Michael Colvin's short-lived, self-absorbed Painter see Lulu. As, it finally occurred to me this time round, you're supposed to.ENO LuluSinister old abusive father-figure Schigolch doesn't have the usual dimension of creepy-comic asthmatic, underlined in the music, but in Willard White's inexorable hands is a powerful manipulator pure and simple. Only James Morris (pictured above with Rae, Dudley to the right), long past his famous Wotan years, is unsympathetically wooden as the unfathomable great love of Lulu's life.

That undercuts something of the power of the dead Schön's return as Jack the Ripper, but in the resurrection of previous "victims" as "clients" – no disguises here – the clarity of Wigglesworth's outlines leaves us spellbound by the power of musical reminiscence. Maybe that's because I have come to know the score better over the years, but if anyone can help you to grasp it, he can. And this is a show you have to go and see again to begin to gather in all its riches. Don't miss the Kentridge exhibition at the Whitechapel, either.

Brenda Rae treads the fine line any Lulu must negotiate between knowingness and simply existing as love-object


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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