Berg: Lulu

The Royal Opera/Pappano

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 6 June 2009 3 stars

ROH LuluThe Royal Opera's new production of Lulu, their first in 26 years, provides an incredibly unbalanced evening of entertainment. At the premiere the orchestra and conductor were on fine form, whilst the singing and acting were generally quite strong, even if some of the characterisations were not entirely resolved. The staging, however, was another matter entirely.

Directed by Christof Loy and designed by Herbert Murauer, it eschews all but the most basic of dramatic scenery. The set such as it was consisted of a bare stage with a moveable panel towards the rear. A neon bar moves about that occasionally blinds the audience as they attempt to skip between surtitles and singers. The wide expanses of the unglamorous backstage area of the House were distractingly visible (from the front of the balcony at least) for most of the second and third acts. There were very few props, and the costumes (by Eva-Mareike Uhlig) were a somewhat bland collection of formal contemporary wear. The choice had clearly been made to foreground the music, and to give the extravagance of Berg’s drama some space to breath.

This approach is a perfectly valid one if done with sensitivity to the nuances of the work and to the singers’ own interpretations thereof. Yet here the details were so stripped back, so experimental in their abstraction, that the production is left with a void at its heart. The lurid richness of Berg's molten score and the extremities of pitch and shape in the vocal lines demand something of sympathy or qualification in the costumes, props or set, something that here is sorely lacking. It felt at times as if you were witnessing an early rehearsal (albeit a musically accomplished one) on a sound stage, or even a hastily thrown together concert performance with orchestra in the pit. I do appreciate Loy’s sheer bloody-mindedness, but his choices have left the production fatally flawed.

EichenholzThe barren staging does not serve Agneta Eichenholz's curious and at times compelling assumption of the title character very well. Lulu is of course a particularly difficult role to portray, both for her excessive music and for the excess of drama she endures. Depending on the interpretation, Lulu can appear vampish, weak-willed, tragic, or simply implausible as a real human being. Eichenholz chose to convey a sort of nothingness, an inverted consciousness that, in the main, has the power to be acted upon, but not to act. Lulu was less the femme fatale here than the nude in oil painting (with the exception of a few important moments), an empty figure upon whom the male can construct his own fantasies, and weave his own fate. The ease with which the men physically administer her, throwing her around and pawing at her freely, even in the first act when she supposedly has them under a spell, underscores this. Lulu is sometimes accused of being inherently misogynistic, but whilst that accusation is undoubtedly true of the Pandora myth upon which its source material, Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays, are based, the overriding impression one gets from the Royal Opera's Lulu is one of sympathy with the two women in the play, and revulsion for the self-absorbed arrogance of some of the men.

Eichenholz, here making her debut on the British stage, proved an assured (if generally inscrutable) dramatic and musical presence at the heart of the production. The vulnerability of her position at the hands of the men was conveyed well by her enigmatic acting in the two outer acts, whilst her tenderness and determination with Schön in their duet at the climax of the first act was deeply affecting,especially in the context of the preceding action where she had showed little selfhood at all. Pappano and his orchestra played the love music underlying this passage with a yearning emotion that yet foretold tragedy and disintegration in its animated chromaticism and its fracturing textures.

Lulu's, and indeed Lulu's, dramatic highpoint came in the first scene of the second act, where Lulu and the formerly bullish but now paranoid and panicky Dr. Schön engage in a long argument about Lulu's many admirers. Eichenholz shaped the antic coloratura with great confidence, as she had done throughout the first act (some cracked notes at the top actually suited the bereft aspect of her character), but she also managed to crucially modulate effectively in the Lied der Lulu into by turns gentle, defiant, and then sorrowful speech and song.

The production on the whole soared in this vital scene. In contrast to the first act, where the singers had to busily move around the stage in compensation for the lack of set, here the fecundity of action meant that these busy movements made sense as part of a more general freneticism. Thus when Schön and Lulu simply stand and deliver their parts in the climactic duet, the drama is given room to breath and the rich complexity of the music and the action became compelling. Pappano and the band excelled here too; the rushing brass at the climax, the phantasms of Lulu’s aria, the ready wit at the entrance of each admirer, all of these were given with accomplishment and finesse, particularly with regard to the ever-evolving interconnectedness of each of Berg’s phrases. The orchestra’s facility over the whole night for creative recalls of stress and emphasis, and their teeming colouristic palette, meant that the overall logic and integrity of the piece, so vital of course in Berg, were securely and creatively in place. It was only really in the somewhat nervy and muddled Prologue, where Peter Rose (who later delighted as the faintly ridiculous Athlete) slipped up over his peremptory entrees, that they disappointed. The playing was generally full of vim and intensity, to the point in fact of sometimes overwhelming the action on stage, particularly in the outer acts.

EichenholzMichael Volle as Dr. Schön and later Jack the Ripper gave an outstanding performance. The heft and confidence of his voice meant that his Schön was immediately believable as a dramatic and paternalistic totem on which Lulu stakes much of her self-worth and her self-hatred. Moreover as the curtain came up on the second act Volle's suddenly staggered, suddenly stooped appearance and his overbearing and guttural singing conveyed to the audience that elusive thing in theatre, a genuine transformation of character. He managed to appear both cruel and caring, strong and weak; his persuasive performance was qualified later in his return as Jack the Ripper where, to menacing reminiscences in the orchestra of both the earlier love music and his unstable bassoon leitmotif, Schön's fateful power over Lulu is confirmed circuitously in her offstage murder.

Most of the cast in fact performed well. Klaus Florian Vogt was occasionally unctuous and even forgettable as Alwa, but he performed movingly when it mattered; Vogt sang with an emotional openness that communicated a vivid tenderness for Lulu in the revealing duet they share just before the final entrance of her father. This tenderness allowed Lulu to express a heartfelt vulnerability through which some of the more damaging aspects of her relationship with Schön were thrown into sharp relief. Yet Lulu is unable to accept Alwa's love on its own terms, just as she is later unable to accept the Countess' equally gentle and fulsome declarations of love. Lulu's troubled identity, perhaps owing to unspecified cruelties that occurred in her childhood, seems such that she is locked into an inescapable cycle of cruelty with the men in her life, both in the first act when she marries them, and in the third, when they pay her custom in her role as a London prostitute.

EichenholzThe Countess was played by a wonderful Jennifer Larmore with a quiet power that was traced with yearning poignancy throughout. A dishevelled Gwyonne Howell as Schigolch, though vocally strong, seemed a little out of place in this production, whilst Will Hartmann as the Painter was a somewhat unconvincing presence, though he must count himself as unfortunate to have much of his action concentrated in the first two scenes of the opera, this production's weakest points. Any cast that can boast as fine a dramatic singer as Philip Langridge in its supporting players must be accorded respect though; Langridge’s suave portrayal of the Prince and then his deliciously wicked Marquis lived up to his high standards, and enlivened the pace and the purpose of the production whenever he was on stage.

After the much stronger second act things tailed off somewhat for the final sections, even though the previously mentioned return of Volle as Jack the Ripper proved invigorating, the music-making continued to be strong, and Eichenholz's interpretation grew in strength and variety. Lulu's dismissals of the Countess' genuine declarations of love were distressing, but they also felt inevitable. From that point Lulu’s fate was bound up with her own self-destructive attitude to life, and you felt that there was only ever one path her character would go down. The production here emphasises the circularity of the drama and the music by returning to the initial set-up of the stage, and by having the returning actors mimic some of their earlier gestures. The sparseness of the setting and the shrouded darkness of the stage, with only an unmoving spotlight picking out glimpses of the characters as they move about, actually served the closed-in drama well here, but it was a case of too little too late, I'm afraid. The production is certainly worth seeing, if only to hear Berg's masterful score performed with character and skill, and to witness some rich inhabitations of the characters. A steely toleration of the ineffectiveness of the staging will be required, however.

By Stephen Graham

Photos credits: Clive Barda


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