On Thursday (4th June) I went to the first night of the Royal Opera’s new production of Lulu, an Opera by Alban Berg. I was planning to blog about this yesterday but after the Opera my birthday celebrations descended into drunken chaos and I ended up getting back very late to Cardiff yesterday; I had to catch up a number of things so I didn’t have time. After the performance and dinner in a nearby restaurant we sat out on Joao’s roofgarden in Notting Hill drinking until the sun started to come up. That part is a bit of blur, but judging by the scale of my hangover yesterday it must have been good. Anyway, I’ve now recovered enough write something about the Opera.
Before Thursday I hadn’t seen Lulu in a live performance, although I do have it on DVD so I knew a bit about it. 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: it’s constantly changing texture, sometimes lushly romantic (with a big nod in the direction of Mahler in Act I), sometimes bleak and jagged. Sometimes there is no music at all and the singers use a stylised method of vocalisation in between speaking and singing (called Sprechstimme). This is used only sparingly in Lulu, but it is wonderfully effective dramatically when it is.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Antonio Pappano, were absolutely fantastic throughout the performance. I’m no musician but I reckon this music must be extremely difficult to play, especially in the brass section, but they played with great passion as well as flawless precision. They really brought Berg’s music to life, and invested it with a vitality that positively glowed throughout the performance. With playing like this, it was easy to understand why Berg is such an influential composer: you can hear in this Opera the ideas behind many Hollywood movie scores, for example.
So what about the Opera itself? The play 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 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 getting older and losing her looks. No longer sexually desirable, she has lost the only way of controlling the men in her life. From this point on, her decline is inexorable and death inevitable.
The new production is quite unlike the recording I have on DVD in that the staging is resolutely minimal. There is no set, just an occasional translucent screen, the costumes are modern and colours are monochrome. Lulu is dressed at one point in a black cocktail dress very like that worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This might have been a deliberate reference to the parallels between Lulu and Holly Golightly (at least in Truman Capote’s novella, which is a much darker concoction than the film based on it); soprano Agneta Eichenholz bears more than a passing resemblance to Audrey Hepburn too. Her slender build -unusual for an opera singer with such a powerful voice – allowed her to play Lulu’s vulnerable aspects very well.
Against a sparse backdrop the characters emerge as series of grotesques, which – at least in principle – is not a bad way of presenting this Opera. Set in such a way it appears as a piece of absurdist theatre which is definitely part of what it represents. There are two problems, however.
One is that the sets give very little clue as to the location of the drama: I wouldn’t have known that the last scene was meant to be Victorian London unless I’d seen it before, so Jack the Ripper’s appearance must have been very confusing to those who hadn’t picked up on that. Lulu is also meant to be a lot older in the last Act, but no attempt is made to age her in this production. The libretto makes repeated reference to a painting of her, and it serves at the end to remind her of her age, but no portrait ever appears; I found that a bizarre omission.
The other problem is that there are strong links between the story of Lulu and the Grand Guignol genre of horror plays, with their opulently macabre stagings and exaggeratedly gory endings. Throwing all those connections away robs the Opera of all of its schlock value and, with that, a great deal of the irony needed to make this blackest of black comedies work the way it should. The killing of Lulu in fact happens off stage in this production which makes the ending very tame. I wouldn’t want to go over-the-top in depicting the horror of Lulu’s death – I wanted to see an Opera, not a snuff movie – but the audience should be shocked by the brutality of her final moments; these are the key to what the Opera is about. Perhaps the director was concerned not to let the drama descend into mere titillation. There’s always a danger of crossing the line into vulgar pornography in depicting explicit sexuality and violence, but I think this production is too afraid of taking risks. This opera should feel more dangerous than this setting allows it to be. Ypu’re not meant to feel comfortable about this Opera.
Although limited by the stylized nature of the production, the principals were good. Agneta Eichenholz’s is a desensitized creature, damaged by abuse and inhabiting a moral vacuum. Her detachment in the face of the death and destruction around her is perfectly judged. She sang beautifully for the most part but – possibly because of first night nerves – her voice came apart on a couple of high notes early on. Other characters worth mentioning are Michael Volle who was outstanding as Dr Schön and Philip Langridge in the dual role of the Prince and the Marquis.
This morning I read Andrew Clements’ review in the Guardian which I thought was a bit harsh: only two stars doesn’t really do justice to a fascinating evening. I would have given three stars for the quality of the music alone. Personally, I could have listened to the whole thing in a concert performance and still enjoyed it. But having decided to go for a full staging, it seems to me a bit perverse to have stripped it down so drastically. Clements claimed he was “bored” by what happened on stage. I certainly wasn’t, but I did find myself more perplexed by the production than by the moral ambivalence of the story itself, so I’d have to say it didn’t really do justice to an Opera which I still think of as masterpiece.