Everyone falls victim to her fascinating beauty and irresistible magnetism. But it would be too simple to see her as a dangerous and amoral seductress. Maybe Lulu herself is really the victim? Even before she meets someone more deadly than she is.
With a highly emotional and intensely expressive score, Berg’s gritty exploration of sexual desire comes to ENO in unforgettable staging from celebrated artist and director William Kentridge. Considered to be one of the seminal operas of the twentieth century, Berg’s score creates a unique sound world that combines his lyrical gifts with powerful orchestral writing. It follows the downfall of the enigmatic Lulu, who shatters the lives of her many lovers as well as her own.
Lulu. Beautiful. Damaged. Seductive. Lethal. Lulu’s whoever you want her to be.
Berg’s picaresque Lulu is a monster, not of characters but of length and uncompromising purity. It holds darkness close to its heart that is just too uncomfortable for most folk to abandon themselves to. The opera depicts the adventures of our roguish heroine of low social class who lives by her wits in a corrupt society. This is a superb production of a difficult and unwieldy creation. Berg’s unfinished Lulu not having a ‘full’ production until 1979 and it’s this that the ENO is currently presenting for our delight and edification. Although I’m not sure delight it’s the right word, admiration certainly, astonishment without doubt and a certain amount of self-satisfaction at getting through the whole three and half hours of this crepuscular moral tale with its savage and hopeless ending.
Mark Wigglesworth conducts the orchestra with a deft and complex touch, bringing all the lyrical richness out of the score while overlaying a tense, unsettled feeling which allows the complex undertones and fastidious writing of the score to glower at us from out under a polished gleaming muscle of energeticly flexed orchestra. It’s a hard thing this music and not something I personally enjoy much, but it’s certainly hugely interesting and keeps the attention and mind firmly on the unfolding narrative. There are two, both working seamlessly, over laid one on the other, the singers and actors and mime working their magic with the music and libretto and then the constantly flowing projections, which cover the whole stage and more, of drawings, paper, cartoons, some film and montage sections. Always of men, looking at women, painting them, exposing them, exploiting them.
The male gaze is as much a part of the narrative as Lulu’s headlong fall into misery from knowing those same men. The whole adds up to much more than its sum. The music ties this all together, it feels like a mish-mash of competing and clashing visual things but very quickly meshes into a coherently progressive whole. It’s a visual feast of Weimar art and culture, literally unfolding in front of us. The music informing the action, the singing taking on the illustration, the morality the colouring and the emotional tones and back around again, it’s ceaseless, nervous, frantic, mesmerising and kept me interested.
You can read a synopsis of the opera here
William Kentridge’s design and direction are powerful, the projections coming from within the characters subconscious, and this is plainly laid out in the opening scenes. It allows us to see beyond the words and also to see Lulu herself as a series of constantly changing projections from the desire and needs of the men around her. James Morris deep dark bass baritone works its menace as Lulu’s very first husband and dreadful murdering last visitor. Michael Colvin‘s painter is superb, manic, quivering and complex until he too is driven to his end by his febrile passions for Lulu.
Nicky Spence deals with the vocal demands of Dr Schön’s son Alwa with deftness and there’s no doubting the echoes of Berg himself in this role. Sara Connolly’s devoted self-sacrificing Countess Geschwitz is intensely sung, utterly captivating and at the finish of the opera, perfectly poised. She’s always a superb singer, tonight was the best I’ve seen her. Willard White’s creepy sugar daddy Schigolch is just the right amount of preposterous deluded male and his voice underpins the arrogance of his role. The whole cast is superb in this production,
Brenda Rae’s Lulu is all you would want her but perhaps not as wild and uncontrollable as she should be, there are hints of it, but it’s more playfulness and tease than desperate need and co-dependence her huge high coloratura pierces the auditorium of the coliseum and her voice is never wrong and gets the burden of destructive beauty just right. She’s aware of her power but not what it uncovers in her lovers, her tender beauty calls out the beast within and her final scenes as she negotiates her selling sex are wretched.
Richard Stokes’s modern translation of the libretto gives the right amount of rough and ready charm to the slick characters and often dips into the brutal bringing us back to basics, also leading to come prurient chuckling from the audience. Joanna Dudley prowls and mirrors the life of Lulu as it unfolds on stage, it’s an angular, disturbing and powerful performance, distracting at first, a side-lined chorus of limbs and strutting, she’s Butoh in stockings but I kept coming back to her, startled and fixed like some half wild animal, frozen in fear or about to ponce, or fall…
For more info or to book tickets see the ENO website here
Until 19th November
London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London
Tickets from £19.
Sung in English, with surtitles projected above the stage