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Monday 1 April 2013

Lulu at Welsh National Opera

Milton Keynes Theatre

copyright WNO/Clive Barda

Lulu is one of the most enigmatic operas ever composed. Cosi fan Tutte, Pelleas et Melisande and Parsifal are also operas which are often puzzled over, but at least these seem probe-able, if not solvable, by appeal to psychologising, interpretation, and knowledge of the composer's predilections and ideas. With Lulu there is no such guarantee: the meaning is either ultra closeted and personal, as is the case with most of Berg's music (the hidden gestures, encoded names etc. of the 19th century romantics taken to the nth degree) or simply vacant. The processes of construction essential to its creation hardly reveal themselves in the drama - there's the recapitulation of the three husbands as the three clients, but again there are so many enigmas here that knowing this barely elucidates anything beyond the much put upon symmetry of the piece. In Wozzeck Berg presents us with a world turned mad, but at least there's a logic to be thwarted - in Lulu, no such reality is established.

Lulu is difficult to stage because although the music is of the utmost intensity, obvious physical and emotional gestures are often (usually?) hard to find in the score - sometimes they're there, but more often than not, the brutal or disgusting happenings in the plot are barely reflected in the music, and always the score surges on with its unrelenting sensuality. Except in dance sections, it's not particularly evocative of setting either, and largely isn't expressionist in terms of being a psychic seismograph of the characters's psychological states like other 12 tone expressionist works of this period. There's a floating meaninglessness to it all, a dissociation and alienation of action and music, action and psychology - surely a reflection of Lulu's relationship with the world she finds herself a part of - a world of emotional extremes, but nightmarish, inexplicable ones that do not submit to analysis or reason.

The score is lush, erotically charged, an ultra dense, shuddering, throbbing, boiling, rippling canvas, maybe the most sheerly beautiful twelve tone score ever composed, and though it feels improvisatory and free it is as tightly controlled and precisely constructed as anything by the far more ascetic Schoenberg. The Lulu Suite presents the clearest case for the opera as a symphonic poem - all the lushest, most juicy portions of the score culled and collected together (just as the Drei Bruchstucke aus Wozzeck did for that opera) in a 33 minute symphony with most of the vocal lines cut. It's a far less oppressive piece without the tortured singing, and shows that the music is quite capable of existing separate from the words.

Director David Pountney makes a very good stab at trying to bring this opera into focus with a well thought out production which gains in potency through the evening. The curious circus metaphor episode that opens the show is extended intermittently into the opera, with characters donning animal costumes that are meant to reflect their personalities and influence their stage deportment - in practise I'm not sure how expressive this is partly because it's not taken far enough, and partly because it hardly seems supported by the music, but it's an interesting device to get things to cohere. Pountney overstuffs the piece with tangential and spurious imagery and symbolism - for example the animal tamer/Schigolch enters dressed as Wotan and Lulu dresses in apple coloured costumes apparently representating the fact that she is similar to Freia in Wagner's Das Rheingold: she keeps the other characters young (later they are seen to have temporarily aged when she is in prison). I (and it seems every other reviewer) would never have guessed this had I not gone to the pre show talk, and even when I did know, it hardly seemed like a huge stroke of insight. The corpses of Lulu's three husbands are hoisted up on hooks after their deaths, just as Lulu's costumes are lowered down - again Pountney says this is a reflection of the symmetries in the score and story, but visually this isn't clear and what registers is that the husbands hang over the rest of the play as hideous spectres.

Act I is probably the hardest to stage with its lightning fast exposition and highly episodic nature, and is the weakest here - it feels chaotic and unspecific, with the male characters not sufficiently differentiated, and the set entirely incidental to the action. Johan Engels' set is a circular metal frame work structure which loosely resembles a circus ring, with a spiral stair case at its centre. It never makes the vague spacial outlines of the score more concrete and is not properly integrated with Pountney's direction, and so is hard to commend. Pountney makes explicit the idea of alienation by encouraging stagey, cartoonish actions for the male characters here which again doesn't come off because the physicality is not quite specific enough. The frequent spoken dialogue is jarringly prerecorded (clearly not by the cast) and played loudly through speakers, which may be another attempt at alienation, and if so it works, but it also further fragments the dramatic flow and the audience's focus on the characters and to me again felt misjudged.

Happily, Act II is much stronger. Here the acting becomes much more natural and characters begin to interact with a degree of realism and even intimacy in the love scenes. Lulu's bed is comprised of huge sections of sagging, bulging flesh - a corpulent mound of languid excess and lethargic sensuality. The abstraction works well and serves to provide a much stronger impression than the semi real aspects of Act I. We are introduced to the tragic character of the Countess Geschwitz, hopelessly devoted to Lulu and very well played by Natascha Petrinsky - she becomes key to the emotional impact of Act III. The end of Act II is beautifully handled, Lulu's nudity not seeming at all gratuitous or shocking, but is instead powerfully revealing in a quite obvious but nonetheless potently metaphorical way. Act III reintroduces the animal characters but fails to conjure a party atmosphere - what hits home is the degradation and hopelessness that Lulu faces at the hands of her three clients now that she is forced to prostitute herself. The unforgiving cruelty and desperation of the interaction with her last client is almost too much to bear - the humour so black that death seems to be the only rational escape. The Countess' dying arietta is searingly direct and unexpectedly moving in an evening that has otherwise been rather light on emotional involvement.

The cast do well in a very challenging score, though one strongly gets the impression that very often they are stretched to their limits musically and so are not able to commit equally to the physical aspects of their portrayal. The exception is Marie Arnet who sails through the score on an ocean of calm, every note beautifully formed, with a silvery beauty and steadyness entirely befitting of the character. Her acting is similarly polished and calmly restrained - this was a very impressive and convincing interpretation of one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire. The other stand out cast member is Natascha Petrinsky Countess Geschwitz who superbly moulds her voice to the situation with a very wide palette of colours and intensities and she seems comfortable in any tessitura. It's not the most blended sound, and often is not even that beautiful (though enchanting sounds do also emerge from her throat,especially in the final scene) but always seems right - an exciting singer and one I'll be looking out for. Peter Hoare does a fine job as Alwa and is only occasionally overtaxed by the demands of his music. I also very much liked Richard Angas as Schigolch who is totally in the idiom and style of the music, declaiming it with a cabaret like precision and unstinting feel for the German language and style that sets him above his peers. Again it's hardly the most beautiful voice, but the intention is always precise and fully realised.

Lothar Koenigs' conducting presents the score unapologetically and with maximum energy, and though I enjoy Lulu to be played with more Viennese schmaltz (as if it were Korngold gone wrong), this was a clear headed and quite beautiful traversal of the score. The WNO orchestra are fully up to the demands of the music and achieve some wonderful things - a very satisfying account.

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