Reactions to the Royal Opera House's latest production of Berg's Lulu range from the enthusiasm of The Telegraph and the Evening Standard (who gave the production a rating of four stars), to the lukewarm three stars of The Times and Financial Times, down to the bitter disappointment of The Guardian and The Stage.
Now, it is clear that there is only one thing in an operatic performance that can elicit such a wide range of responses - the staging. And it is ironic that this should attract so much attention when, as it is the case with this production, it 'does' so little. The theme of Christof Loy's creation (born of his collaboration with stage designer Herbert Murauer, and light designer Reinhard Traubis) is neutrality: a staging that provides a blank canvas for the deeply enigmatic music and text.
Indeed, this is a stark change from the usual streaks of sleazy vaudeville that haunt your typical Lulu production: 'There is no fairground fun to be had here, no freakshow glee, no leopard skin' writes Anna Picard for The Independent; and in the eyes of its admirers, this cruel purity is precisely the strength of Loy's Lulu: 'one doesn't often see opera acted with such freedom and honesty and absence of flummery' writes Rupert Christiansen from The Telegraph. The Financial Times' Andrew Clark admires Loy's ability 'to reflect the formal aesthetic of Berg's every scene'. To some, the challenge is even exciting: 'Alienating as it is, we see it all in a new light' writes Barry Millington for the Evening Standard.
Or do we? 'Loy's purpose in stripping down this complex and many-layered work escapes me', complains Andrew Clements for The Guardian, whose opinion of Loy's production is that 'both dramatically and theatrically it is a nothing'. Some, like George Hall for The Stage, conceded that Loy's vision had some 'serious purpose', although it resulted in a 'a dull and skimpy affair to look at'. Dull being perhaps, the catchword for the most of the bad press received by Loy's staging.
Lulu is an opera that is both painstakingly structured and constructed (Hence Clark's remark about 'Berg's formal aesthetic' ) and frenziedly paced, as well as lusciously scored. Thus some people will have no time for blank canvasses. Hence the bitterness of The Times' Richard Morrison who, referring to Loy, writes: 'he has turned one of opera's most steamily action-packed yarns into a glacial, uninvolving yawn'. The 'yawn' theme is picked up also by The Guardian, whose review concludes on the following, rather sour, note: 'never imagined I could be bored by what was happening on stage in this supremely great work, but Loy's production, unforgivably, manages it'.
But when it comes to musical execution, we get something much closer to a unison, starting with the praise rightly bestowed on Antonio Pappano's reading of the score: '[his] electrifying conducting is razor-sharp in the manner of Pierre Boulez' writes The Telegraph; '[he] showed that even this formidably complex score could be delivered with eloquence and passion' (Evening Standard); '[he] produces the finest achievement of his seven years as Royal Opera music director' (Financial Times).
These are but a few of the glowing reviews inspired by the conductor's performance. On the singers, as is often the case, unison turns into counterpoint: Agneta Eichenholz, replacing the original principal at a short notice (for an opera like Lulu anyway) clearly played along with Loy's theme on neutrality, thus eliciting the same mixed reactions as the staging. The Telegraph - who gave Loy a positive response - praises her performance: 'singing with an extraordinary grace and insouciance, Eichenholz manages to make this monster chillingly real and hauntingly beautiful'. On the other hand, The Guardian - who most bitterly disagreed with Loy's vision - finds that 'psychologically she is a blank sheet, not so much a femme fatale as a femme fatally flawed'.
Michal Volle as Schön got the thumbs up ('oustanding', The Guardian and the Evening Standard; 'impressive', The Times; 'imposing [...] and handsomely declaimed', Financial Times), while Klaus Florian Vogt may not have convinced everyone as Alwa (The Telegraph's remark on his 'hazily out of tune' singing is countered by the Financial Times: 'Vogt's Alwa cuts a dash and sings gloriously'). Yet approving nods were sent to all of the remaining cast, particularly Peter Rose as The Athlete, Philip Langridge as The Prince and The Marquis, and Jennifer Larmore's Countess Geschwitz.
The passive violence of a production that strips out all aesthetic pleasure may not be for everyone: dividing the press as neatly as Loy has managed to with his Lulu is no easy feat. Whatever your take on it may be, this Lulu takes a big risk in being so utterly uncompromising it its vision. And operatic productions that manage to truly anger and startle, despite a musical performance of the highest quality, are hard to come by.
Lulu is at the Royal Opera House until 20 June.
Photo Credits: Clive Barda
Have your say: discuss this article in our Forum.