Lulu, Alban Berg
Royal Opera House
10th June, 2009
With such a sordid and depraved drama at its core, one would think a performance of Berg's Lulu might provoke discussion. It certainly did this time. As I sat down in my seat for this reviewer‘s first Lulu experience, the gentleman next to me asked to borrow a pen. He and his wife then struck up a conversation and showed me a copy of the programme from their last Lulu experience: 1981 at ROH. There we were, about to see the same performance, but as I soon discovered in the first interval, we had both arrived with completely different expectations. I expected Berg‘s lush German romanticism and tone rows, a complicated plot full of cycles and mirror images, and a disturbed heroine following the dark and twisted path of her existence.
My neighbours however, had definite visual expectations, including colourful depiction of mayhem with wild animals and commedia characters. I fear they were disappointed by the bare black and white of this production. And yet, their disappointment was this reviewer’s delight. The lack of superfluous elements helped focus the audience on the essential drama. One was able to follow the narrative in several manageable elements. Key points were defined using lighting, repetition of specific movements and poses, and colour accents. During the prologue, for example, while my neighbours were expecting circus animals in cages, one was able to envision these animal metaphors simply from Peter Rose's (Animal Trainer/Athlete) word painting. Using the stark set and virtually monochromatic palette, Mr. Loy was able to effectively highlight important moments and objects.
Bearing in mind the feelings of my neighbours, I ask the question, 'is it possible to see life in black and white?'- especially when we are considering the life of so (pardon the obvious expression) colourful a character. Well, yes. There were only a handful of times in which colour was used and the impact of each use was significant. The first real splash of colour comes at a pivotal moment in Lulu's character arch: her performance during which she faints. This is the turning point in her relationship with Dr. Schön. In opposition to the stark florescent lighting we had seen up until that moment, it is highlighted not only by splashes of blood red and blue, but by a warm, yellow lighting. Did I miss colour? Yes, absolutely and appropriately. Did I miss animals in cages? No.
In such a confusing tangle of characters, the cyclical staging smartly clarified relationships between events and characters. Each husband died in the same spot on stage. After each death, the following pattern emerged: Lulu was left alone centre stage next to the dead body, all other characters cleared, then the dead husband got up and walked off stage left. One appreciated the way certain patterns were emphasized including mirror concepts written into Berg's score.
The lighting also helped defined these characters with moments of total exposure and total darkness. At one point, Painter locked himself in the bathroom, an effect achieved with him isolated in the spotlight while all the other characters were in the dark. In other moments, characters were out of the light thereby isolating them in darkness, pointing out where they were not. Right from the prologue, certain poses are established. For example, Lulu is down right in the spot with Dr. Schön. This tableau serves as a 'neutral position' so to speak and the characters return over and over to that position. Therefore, when the spot is there but empty, as in the final scene, Lulu's absence is significant and important. She is not where she should be.
While my neighbors‘ discussion had me unexpectedly focused on the visual production, I found the performances equally intriguing. Certainly it must be said that the orchestra was one of the biggest stars of the evening. Maestro Pappano brilliantly led the Royal Opera House orchestra throughout this incredibly moving and extremely challenging score. The rising swells were thrilling and the marcato, jagged moments were startling and significant. Jennifer Larmore's singing as Countess Geschwitz was exceptionally beautiful. Her warm, rich sound brought enough colour to the stage to almost eradicate the black and white concept. Ms. Larmore's final moment in the spotlight was heart-wrenching and her pianissimi were absolutely gorgeous: a stunning performance. Other highlights were German tenors Will Hartmann (Painter/Policeman/Negro) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Alwa). Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz making her Royal Opera debut as Lulu, certainly managed the extremely difficult role but one did feel that her performace lacked impact. The eye was drawn to other characters. Ms. Eichenholz did, however, shine particularly in her romantic music with Alwa.
At the close of the opera, the production came full-circle. The stage was returned to its opening set and lighting: the bare beam of florescent bulbs hovered over the set, flickering, with the lone spotlight downstage right. However, at the end of the evening something had changed in the audience. This production challenged the intellect and one‘s ability to empathize. While it wasn't the circus-romp my neighbours had been expecting, it was smart, poignant and well-executed. Because of the very clear images portrayed by Mr. Loy and his production team, this Lulu will be in my mind for years to come.
Bottom line: A fine example of how less can be more.
Director: Christof Loy
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Designs: Herbert Murauer
Costumes: Kandis Cook
Lighting: Reinhard Traub
Lulu: Agneta Eichenholz
Countess Geschwitz: Jennifer Larmore
Dr Schön / Jack the Ripper: Michael Volle
Alwa: Klaus Florian Vogt
Schigolch: Gwynne Howell
Animal Trainer / Athlete: Peter Rose
Dresser / Schoolboy / Groom: Heather Shipp
Prince / Manservant / Marquis: Philip Langridge
Mother: Frances McCafferty
Painter / Negro: Will Hartmann
Professor of Medicine: Jeremy White
15 year-old Girl: Simona Mihai
Lady Artist: Monika-Evelin Liiv
Journalist: Kostas Smoriginas
Manservant: Vuyani Mlinde
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION: http://www.roh.org.uk/