Lulu at WNO
Time for a quick post about Saturday night at the Opera while I have my sandwich lunch. I have reviewed Lulu by Alban Berg before but David Pountney’s production for Welsh National Opera was quite different to the Covent Garden version I saw a few years ago.
Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, but he developed his own take on the twelve-tone techniques developed by his mentor. Not everyone finds serialist music easy to enjoy, but I think if you’re going to have a go at it this Opera is one of the best places to start. I think the score for Lulu is completely wonderful with a constantly changing texture, sometimes lushly romantic (with a big nod in the direction of Mahler in Act I), sometimes bleak and disjointed. It’s easy to understand why Berg is such an influential composer: you can hear in this Opera the ideas behind many Hollywood movie scores, and there are whole sections that sound like they come from the soundtrack of a Hammer Horror film.
So what about the Opera itself? The plot revolves around the character of Lulu, an enigmatic figure who is at times innocent and vulnerable and at others cynical and manipulative. Her personality is only revealed to us through her interactions with men, all of which end in disaster. Lulu’s first husband has a heart attack and dies; her second commits suicide. She then shoots another man and is imprisoned but eventually escapes. By the end of the opera, many years later on, she has wound up in London and is living in poverty and working as a prostitute. She dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper.
The structure of the Opera is like a mirror, with Lulu’s reversal of fortunes happening after an intermezzo in the middle of Act 2, at the centre of which there is a remarkable musical palindrome (shown above). Before this her role in the drama is to drive the men around her into obsession, madness and death, although she never appears to understand why she has this effect on them. After the dramatic fulcrum of the piece she becomes more and more of a victim. The reason for this is not some great change in her own psychological make-up but just that she is losing her looks, as a result of illness and ageing. No longer sexually desirable, she has lost the only way of controlling the men in her life. From this point her decline is inexorable and death inevitable. It’s also no coincidence that her murderer is played by the same actor who plays her first lover, Dr Schön.
This production looks very different to the Covent Garden production, but rather than describe it in words it’s probably easier to look at the promotional video made by WNO.
It’s a very vivid and imaginative staging based on a stark framework made of metal that dominates the stage. A particularly effective and disturbing idea is to have the corpses of Lulu’s ex-lovers winched up into this structure on meat hooks after they’re dead and left to dangle there for the rest of the performance. Although the principal element of the set remains in place throughout, changes of mood and location are represented with dramatic changes of lighting and colour; Victorian London is memorably evoked with fog and a plethora of raised umbrellas. It’s all quite different from how I would have imagined the piece, but none the worse for that.
Marie Arnet was an excellent Lulu, giving a delicately nuanced portrayal of a complex central character who is as manipulated as she is manipulating. She is in turns cold-hearted and vulnerable, seductive and exploited. She bares all in this production, first in Act II, and is again naked when she is killed at the end of Act III. Neither scene is done gratuitously. Although her death scene is very shocking and horrific, it is not done in a titillating way. The rest of the cast was very good too, and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under Lothar Koenigs played the extraordinary music with clarity and energy. The saxophones and vibraphone, included to lend a bit of jazz-age decadence to the piece, were very prominent.
Before seeing this production I saw that the first night got a rave review and five stars in the Guardian. I wasn’t sure what to make of that as I rarely agree with published reviews. In fact I agree with much of Andrew Clements said, but wouldn’t have given it five stars. I’d probably give it four, if I did stars…
In Berg’s score the singers are sometimes called upon to use a stylised method of vocalisation in between speaking and singing (called Sprechstimme). This can be extremely effective from a dramatic point of view when done well. In this production I was perturbed that the short pieces of the libretto intended to be performed in this way were in fact delivered by disembodied recorded voices. I thought that was peculiar when I first noticed it, and as it recurred throughout the performance it started to irritate me quite considerably. I couldn’t tell which character was meant to be speaking, and in any case the recorded voices sounded nothing like those of any of the characters on stage. This device was probably used because some of the parts were played by people in animal masks, but other than that I couldn’t see the point of it.
That was an unfortunate blot on an otherwise excellent production, but there was still much to enjoy and I’m very glad I went back to Cardiff to see it.Follow @telescoper