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Alban Berg's masterful opera tells the gripping story of the rise and fall of Lulu, culminating in her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Christof Loy's austere, minimalist production allows the complexities of the drama to unfold through the sumptuous, taut beauty of the score. Agneta Eichenholz and Michael Volle lead an all-star cast under Antonio Pappano. Recorded in High Definition with true surround sound.
Composer: Alban Berg
Stage director: Christof Loy
Animal Trainer / Athlete: Peter Rose
Alwa: Klaus Florian Vogt
Dr Schön / Jack the Ripper: Michael Volle
Lulu: Agneta Eichenholz
Painter / Policeman / Negro: Will Hartmann
Professor of Medicine / Theatre Manager / Banker / Professor: Jeremy White
Schigolch: Gwynne Howell
Dresser / Schoolboy / Groom: Heather Shipp
Prince / Manservant / Marquis: Philip Langridge
Countess Geschwitz: Jennifer Larmore
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
A Royal Opera House production
Plus: Cast gallery, interviews with Antonio Pappano and Agneta Eichenholz
Sound: 2.0 LPCM & 5.1 DTS Digital
Region code: 0
Running time: 205 mins
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I greatly admire this work, of which I have seen three previous productions (including seeing the previous production by the ROH twice) and I possess two recordings. I therefore jumped at the chance to see it again and also brought my daughter, who works in the theatre, knows the original Wedekind plays but has previously only seen a video of the opera.
I thought the singers and orchestra did a grand job. The men were well cast, with suitably differentiated voices. Volle as Schön was particularly impressive, as he needed to be, and commanded the range of emotions of the character from dominance to abject submission and surrender. Vogt as Alwa sounded well though he did not really look the part and he did not develop the character. The Painter was lyrical and expressive. It was unfortunate that the doctor, painter and Schön were not given different costumes when they return as Lulu’s clients in the third act; this represented a coarsening of the work. Of the smaller parts I would single out Rose as the animal trainer and athlete. His part gives some scope for humour, which he took.
Larmore as Geschwitz looked and sounded well. She should not be an old bag and she wasn’t. Her adoration for Lulu was expressed too physically – another coarsening. In the title role Eichenholz had mastered the formidably difficult line, and if she tended to get loud at the top of the range this is partly down to Berg. Her conception of the part emphasized innocence and vulnerability more than mine, but this was legitimate. She also looked the part, or rather could have done had the costume designer done his job. Of the Pierrot outfit specified by Berg in the first scene there was no trace, and in fact her clothes were consistently drab. Nor was she helped by her movements, and the idea of having her simply stand on the stage between scenes was a bad one.
Pappano had prepared the orchestra so well that they played this difficult score as if it were a repertory work. The strings were silky and sinuous, the saxophone was prominent when it need to be and blended in when that was required. The percussion were vigorous and accurate though perhaps the vibraphone was not always sufficiently prominent. I also particularly admired the lovely tone of the principal oboe and the expressive work from the brass, particularly when muted as they often are in Berg. Pappano himself knew the score thoroughly and made it naturally expressive and beautiful. I am old enough to remember when performances were very far from this.
Visually, however, the production was deplorable, in fact the feeblest production of a major work I can ever remember seeing in more than fifty years of attending plays, operas and ballets. It was even worse than my previous all-time low, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, put on by the ROH about ten years ago in a production by the infamous Peter Sellars. In any other profession the director would have had his contract cancelled and fee withdrawn for incompetence compounded by arrogance. What right does he think he has to replace Berg’s clear directions, which are just as much part of the score as the notes for the singers and players, with bad ideas of his own? Here are a few examples:
1. There was virtually no set, just a drab background and the only furniture was a single chair. There was no attempt to evoke the various scenes specified. Instead of the colour and life evoked by the music and specified in the score there was nothing but a bleak background, which looked as if it had been left over from the set for the labyrinth in The Minotaur last year. It was miserable. It also made it harder for anyone who did not already know the work to follow the story. If anyone says I just did not appreciate the director’s minimalist conception I would say that Lulu is not a work suited to a minimalist conception – try instead a play by Racine.
2. Instead of Lulu’s picture, which is an important motif in the score and often referred to by the characters, there was instead a pool of light, in some but not all scenes. This is a classic example of a bad and confusing idea by the director replacing a clear and good one by the composer.
3. There was no attempt to present the silent film specified for the interlude in the second act. The director simply failed to engage with this at all. Yet it would have been perfectly achievable with the cast of the current production and should have been done. Why wasn’t it? There is no good reason.
4. Other necessary props were missing. For example when Lulu shoots Schön he collapses in a chair and at the end of the act she says to Alwa: ‘Ist das noch der Diwan – auf dem sich – dein Vater – verblutet hat?’ But there was no sofa – I noted that it was also omitted from the surtitle though it is there in the German text.
5. The entrances and exits of the characters did not correspond to Berg’s instructions. As he reflects these in the music it means that stage and pit were frequently out of kilter. For example the doctor, instead of banging on the door in the first scene, entering and dying of a stroke, sat on stage on a chair, then got up and fell over. Ridiculous. And at the end of each scene the characters simply stood woodenly instead of leaving and then coming on as needed.
6. The director seems also not to have read the libretto and is under the impression that Alwa commits suicide though in fact he is murdered by the Negro. Of course the audience would not have realized that Lulu’s three clients in the last act were different people from her husbands in the first, though played by the same cast as they wore the same costumes – another example of coarsening Berg’s point.
What is the moral of this? A bad production is more significant in a rare work than in a repertory one. If the last production of Hamlet was a bit disappointing there will probably be another one or two this year. But Lulu has not been seen at the ROH for twenty-six years. It is not an easy work and the audience does need the help of appropriate sets, costumes and action to understand and appreciate it. Thanks to the current effort it will probably be another twenty-six years before it is put on again at the ROH because the management will get the idea that ‘the public doesn’t like it’. But the fault is in the production, not the work. So get rid of celebrity directors: their so-called insights are nearly always distortions. Give the work to the in-house team. Charge them to evoke the scenes imagined by the composer and librettist – in this case the same person - and to follow the stage directions. I understand that the 1987 Scottish Opera production, which I did not see, did this. Yes, there is a role for some degree of creative interpretation but it is a small one. Christof Loy is another one for the list which includes Calixto Bieito and Peter Sellars: put them on the programme and I shall be absent from the audience.