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Wednesday 2 October 2013

American Lulu at the Young Vic

The Opera Group/The Young Vic

It's very unusual for the Young Vic to do an opera, and as such when it does happen it is a real opportunity to bring the art form to an audience that wouldn't otherwise think of attending. I love Lulu (see here for some reasons) and I entered open minded, not having read any of the reviews; having seen it I don't really get the line of reasoning that led to this show being created and staged, and then in such high profile venues. The original Lulu is still shocking and strange enough dramatically that it doesn't seem like it's crying out for radical reinterpretation yet, in a way that say La Boheme might be. Much less recomposition - Berg's opera is one of the most immaculately worked out scores ever created in terms of formal construction, timbre and orchestration - there had better be some major gains for the inevitable losses that come with any rearrangement. Or if the answer to the question of "why?" is "why not?", then "why" at least remains an equally plausible question if the quality is found wanting. Lulu is also already very hard work musically for a large proportion of serious opera goers and for most casual listeners it will probably just sound like noise. And so it proved here - I've never seen so many people walk out of a theatre before - by the end fully a third of the audience had crept out of the show while it was going on. Perhaps it wasn't the music that was making people leave though: there was little dramatically to keep them there either.

As an aside: Curious that the play Woyzeck on which Berg's other opera is based simultaneously also received an Americanising treatment in Punchdrunk's superb current production entitled The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. American Lulu updates Berg's opera to 60's/70's America, with Lulu now haunted by the moralising messages of Martin Luther King and other famous civil rights speakers of the era. But it's totally unclear how this affects the narrative or drama, or what conclusions we're meant to draw from this - that black people can be selfish too? That white oppression has desocialised Lulu? That her hedonism and carelessness is a revenge on her white admirers? No insights as to meaning are proffered or even invited.

The changes made to the central character, or at least how she was portrayed in this production by John Fulljames, are however radical and certainly do effect our experience of the piece. One of the interesting things about Wedekind/Berg's Lulu is that she is both so sexually fascinating to all who surround her and simultaneously so elusively blank and vacant. This not only allows/encourages the other characters to project their fantasies onto her, it also means that character, score and situation are in total alignment - the strange floating dislocation of the score mirrors Lulu's drifting relationship with her surroundings and orbiting admirers. She never plays a role or tries to please. In American Lulu, the character of Lulu is quite different - she's much more down to earth and genuinely enjoys herself during her manipulations and seductions. She's not the soulless husk of Berg's Lulu and so is far less convincingly in her sociopathy: rather than being some fickle random force, she seems to actually have motives, while somehow never crystallising into a believable character. So she's stuck between both camps and not effective as either.

The opera is shortened, the plot is simplified, the third act rewritten and recomposed, but little is radically different from the opera we know. Lulu still becomes a prostitute and still dies at the end, though we don't get the symmetry of Berg's/Cerha's ending. The playing space is very narrow which may limit things, and there are few props with the set is limited to some low quality projections, the worst and most laughably embarrassing of which tells the story of the Countess Geschwitz's abuse at the hands of a prison guard. In minimalist productions such as this, the focus and attention naturally goes even more towards the characterisation and a desire for nuanced interaction. Sadly though the male characters all lack definition and are hard to believe in physically or emotionally. Berg's vocal writing is hard in virtually every parameter, and much of the time the cast seem to be struggling just to sing the notes and stay with the conductor. The result is very boring and uninvolving, the already surreal plot devolving into a seemingly endless parade of stagey interactions and hammy deaths. Angel Blue, in the title role, at least seems vocally secure and occasionally turns a beautiful phrase, but the character is so uninteresting that the singing almost doesn't seem important.

Berg is one of the great orchestrators, so to hear the lush tapestry of this score rearranged for chamber orchestra was continually disappointing - much of the flickering detail and many of glowing sonorities had been stripped away, leaving a rather harsh remnant. Olga Neuwirth's loose knit musical contribution frames and outlines the score with jazzband stylings that sound like a mishmash of Reichian minimalism meets jazz meets Feldman. There's little that's arresting. The London Sinfonietta under Gerry Cornelius are workmanlike and go no further than accuracy (in its way an achievement). A disappointing evening.

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