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Eroticism and Expressionism. Lulu.

10 November 2016

Lulu

by Alban Berg

English National Opera at The London Coliseum until 19th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Wedekind’s two Lulu plays form a systematic dissection of sexual fascination, a cynical saga of a femme fatale whose alluring sensuality creates a train of destruction, destitution and death. Berg’s unfinished opera brings beauty to the chaotic and humanity to the tragic.

ENO’s production, whose highly anticipated opening at the Coliseum on 9th November transferred from Amsterdam via the Metropolitan Opera in New York, played to the company’s strengths with ENO’s orchestra at its best and a quirky set full of complexity and broad spectacle.

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As with violence, sexual ecstasy is best hinted at on stage rather than being explicit and William Kentridge’s production drew both its eroticism and its horror largely from the unseen. Not that there was too little to see, there was almost too much. A frenetically dynamic set of images thrown onto a multi-surfaced set dissolved and reformed in reflection of Lulu’s continually changing liaisons.

Kentridge is best known as an eccentric pince-nez sporting artist. Born in South Africa, his work ranges from epic murals along the Tiber in Rome, via illustrations, to miniaturised works such as those currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery. The Whitechapel exhibition includes Right into her Arms, an installation that references Lulu. This can be regarded as a model for the vast Coliseum sets, realised with Sabine Theunissen’s set designs and Urs Schönbaum’s lighting. Massive cartoons in black ink are brushed in, to be fragmented and erased, over giant pages from the Oxford English Dictionary and from Wedekind’s original German text. The artist’s own drawings of famous men, as well as of Lulu herself constantly flicker into view, hyperactive and unnerving animations which wink and blink at the goings-on on stage.

Meanwhile Lulu’s alter ego in the distractively lithe shape of dancer, Joanna Dudley, plays out a fantasy of Lulu’s thoughts throughout the whole 3¾ hours of the opera, seated at a piano in act one, on it in act two, and in the piano in act three. The eroticism becomes more and more heightened as the plot progresses.

With the Biedermeier furniture on a black, white and sepia set, the whole effect was of German expressionism, and would sit appropriately in 1930’s Dresden with Dix, or Kirchner, or Klee in Die Brücke movement.

One might have thought that this go-go-go of visual imagery and symbolism would distract from the opera itself, but it veered just to the right side of being a brilliant foil for the drama, music and singing.

ENO’s orchestra, imaginatively conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, brought forth the melancholic lyricism and the emotional heights from the notoriously difficult twelve-note composition. Wigglesworth has gone for Friedrich Cerha’s accepted standard completion of the unfinished third act and the musical form of the whole is a palindrome.

Wedekind’s plays and Berg’s libretto (here robustly translated by Richard Stokes) are also in the form of a palindrome, Lulu’s rise to wealth and descent to abject poverty, and the reappearance of each of the men who had fallen prey to the perils of her erotic extremes, who become her predators in a different guise. Not that most of these tragi-comic characters do not deserve their fates, for they are all misogynistic manipulators, venal parasites or puerile infatuates. All Lulu’s relationships (even those with her servants) are sexually motivated, including the self-sacrificing Countess Geschwitz, perhaps the most sympathetically drawn character, who becomes her Lesbian lover, and ultimately is killed with her at the bloody hands of Jack the Ripper.

Nevertheless, Wedekind’s plays and Berg’s opera, both so protracted in their gestation, are highly moral tales. Banned for different reasons at different times, they show that no action is without consequence.  The men who become enthralled and enslaved by Lulu’s sexual charms are at best humiliated, at worst are murdered.  Lulu, the amoral seducer, coercer and murderer, meets her own end as a reviled prostitute, weakened by cholera, herself to be mutilated and killed in the most hideous way in the back-alleys of London.

Sarah Connolly, a luxuriant mezzo, as the love-sick Countess Geschwitz, portrayed all the pitiful plight of the hapless hopeful, whose misplaced, but selfless, love is unrequited. David Soar’s arrogant Athlete and Animal Tamer were superb.  Willard White played the ambiguous Schigolch, whom Lulu describes, unconvincingly, as her father, but later acts as her pimp, his velvety bass belying the duplicity of the character.  Tenor, Nicky Spence, as the bemused Alwa, son of Dr Schön, a wealthy newspaper proprietor and long-time lover of Lulu, was outstanding.  However, James Morris as Dr Schön himself was rather lacklustre, with a tired vocal quality.  When Morris returned in the palindromic role of Jack the Ripper he failed to convince, with no sense of the sinister and a cockney accent that sounded more mid-Western.

The eponymous Lulu is an enormous role for any singer. Soprano, Brenda Rae, was unflagging in her vocally accurate and clarity. However, although she portrayed Lulu’s erotic allure convincingly, she came across a little bit too “nice” for the amoral snake described by the animal tamer in the prologue, who develops into a coercive concubine, perfectly capable of murder.  She didn’t quite have the bold presence to make a compelling femme fatale.

Here is piece that reeks with symbolism and pulses with febrile immediacy. It is at once an epic spectacle and an intimate vivisection of a society that has allowed itself to become self serving and sordid.  It is an integrated artwork, dramatically gripping, musically moving and artistically imaginative.

 Mark Aspen

November 2016

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From → Opera, Reviews

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Two really interesting reviews. Thank you

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