Lulu stripped bare
This artistic tension sprang to mind whilst watching the current production of Alban Berg’s Lulu at the Royal Opera House. A co-production with Teatro Real in Madrid, it seeks to strip down the narrative to its fundamental elements, scrupulously avoiding any sense of historical specificity and instead focusing upon what director Christof Loy calls the opera’s “universal timelessness”. Performed against a transparent screen at the back of the stage, the singers are dressed uniformly in monochrome costume and must rely upon a small handful of props -a bunch of flowers, a few chairs, a gun- to dramatize the outrageous events of the story. Even the painting of Lulu, which plays such a crucial role in the narrative and torments her with its youthful beauty, is here absent and is instead replaced by the fourth wall of the audience. The one rupture into genuine social reality -the appearance of Jack the Ripper- in this context becomes essentially symbolic, not a mere shock tactic but rather a figure of ultimate misogyny: a perverted Commendatore come to punish Lulu for her transgressive behavior.
Loy’s staging has its own historical logic in so far as it plays up the Brechtian elements of Berg’s source material, effectively alienating the audience from the action and forcing them to concentrate upon the characters’ psychological motivations and the conveyor-belt of exploitation and desire which fills up the drama. The main protagonist even has her own gestus, a mildly disgusted smirk which she turns on at crucial moments of repose in the action. The singers’ movements have been carefully orchestrated by Thomas Wilhelm, and after a somewhat stiff first act the opera developed convincingly towards its gruesome conclusion. The main problem with this production, unfortunately, is that in such a formally reductive setting, the burden of characterization and dramatic interest rests almost exclusively upon the singers on stage. With so little to help them in the creation of socially rounded individuals, the end-result feels disappointingly two-dimensional - neither particularly funny, nor erotic nor even shocking, but simply a cool presentation of isolated egos, who exist in no world beyond the confines of the stage and remain psychological types rather than fully-formed characters. The integrity and seriousness of Loy’s vision is never in doubt, but by so pointedly excluding any outside reality, he has rendered Berg’s opera curiously uninvolving: rather than universally timeless, these characters simply belong nowhere.
© 2009 by Clive Barda
The singers themselves should be warmly applauded for their commitment to this demanding score, which at three-hours length presents a stamina test for all involved. Taking on the title role was Agneta Eichenholz, a Swedish soprano making her Covent Garden debut, and who impressed with her faultless coloratura and dramatic sensitivity. Her very high, very light voice was ideally suited to portraying Lulu less as the root of all evil, but rather as an emotionally damaged and profoundly vulnerable young woman, one whose sexual encounters serve both to punish those around her and to affirm her own fragile sense of self-worth. What was perhaps missing was a sense of Lulu’s seductive power, her siren-like ability to attract all whom she meets, and which compels them to find in her the image of their own desires. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable achievement and Eichenholz will undoubtedly be re-employed around the world on the basis of her performance in London.
© 2009 by Clive Barda
The other two major interpretations came from Michael Volle and Jennifer Larmore. As Dr Schön (and later Jack the Ripper), Volle was in marvellous, resonant voice and excitingly evoked the figure of the leering pater familias, who rescued Lulu as a twelve-year old girl and now holds the key to her psychological dungeon. Their act two confrontation was the dramatic highlight of the performance and his physical gestures in his final guise made clear the circularity of Lulu’s narrative journey. As the Countess, Larmore was unusually delicate and impassioned, her lyrical flights revealing the unconditional tenderness of her feelings, and the security of her singing from top to bottom was a delight. One wishes she appeared at Covent Garden more often. Amongst the other roles, Philip Langridge particularly impressed with his grotesque Marquis, creating character as though out of a box, and Klaus Florian Vogt in turn offered full-toned singing, aptly conveying Alwa’s combination of sexual passion and personal weakness. That said, the cast was uniformly well-prepared and they all executed their roles with dramatic conviction and flair.
This only leaves Antonio Pappano’s conducting, which was predictably splendid. Every musical line in this score appeared to have a journey of its own, the different orchestral colours beautifully handled and always with a sensitivity to the music’s narrative flow. The only qualities that felt missing echoed the problems onstage: namely a certain want of voluptuousness, of satire and sleaze, which would have given the music its edge. The end result was slightly cool, but once again one couldn’t fault the seriousness of those involved. The building didn’t exactly disappear; but on this showing it wasn’t quite all there either.