Review: WNO - Lulu @ WMC
This article was originally published on Monday 25th March 2013 but was voted to be a featured article at the last Sprout Editorial Group meeting.The next SEG meeting is Thursday 25th April 2013, feel free to pop along, it is open to everyone.
Wales Millennium Centre
Saturday 23rd February 2013
Welsh National Opera’s Free Spirits season is at full throttle with Alban Berg’s Lulu, an opera not for the faint of heart. This has to be one of the most ambitious productions WNO have ever done. There is so much to discuss in this review that I doubt I could get it all in.
The character of Lulu (Preformed by Marie Arnet) is a vortex, certainly one of the most challenging ever written. Lulu is an enigmatic femme fatale who is seductive and destructive, yet highly vulnerable and naive. We never know where she is from. Is she human? Is she eternal? Or something in-between? Her marriages are short and abundant, with each husband's death leading to their corpses suspended on hooks and dragged up the set for the audience's viewing pleasure. She is different things to different people, with various names such as Lulu, Pandora and others.
Each character is given their own musical tone row. The work can be described as a massive palindrome, the music mirroring itself. This is most evident halfway through the work when she is arrested, trailed and imprisoned for the killing of her third husband, Doctor SchÃ¶n played by Ashley Holland. His corpse hung up, looked a great deal like him, whilst the other didn't as much. She shoots him no less than five times, after his attempts to force her to kill herself. I jumped in my seat when she fired a practice shot into the air just before this. She really did love him more than any other. But all they could ever do was bicker on stage. No real romance between them. Thus the rise of Lulu has ended and here begins her catastrophic downfall.
The arrest and further judgement have in many productions incorporated a film depicting these events. This was first seen at the premiere, with no more than four stills of the original film by Heinz Ruckert remaining from 1937. It would have been interesting to see what WNO could have come with here. But as I have expressed in previous articles, video work in opera is a funny business.
The opera is based on two of the 'Lulu plays' by Frank Wedekind. Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box were both very highly controversial plays for their time. Wedekind has been dubbed a misogynist. Perhaps it's better to look at him as a liberator of women with his creation of Lulu. He has also acquired a new generation of fans with a musical version of his other play Spring Awakening, which caused quite stir in the West End a couple of years ago.
The set here is one of the best I've seen them do; a massive metal cage with entrances and exits scattered all over. There was even a spiral staircase in the middle. The costumes, as well as the masks used, were very striking (with brightly coloured moulds of the masks in the third act). Parts of the opera were silent so pre-recorded German-speaking actors could read out the spoken parts via speakers. This was jarring but read very well by the actors. The reason for this is purely because half the actors were in masks, which would have muffled their voices.
Each of the main characters is represented by a different animal. In the prologue to the opera, Lulu is represented by a snake. We see her brilliant arrival on stage in a body bag, with one of her arms delicately emerging out, rather like an appendage. Our host in the Prologue is the Animal Tamer played by Richard Angas. He also plays Schigolch, who is a sort of father figure for Lulu. His asthma wheezing is even incorporated into the score. But when playing the Animal Tamer, he arrived on stage looking more like Wotan from Wagner's Ring Cycle. For a brief moment, you think it's going to be an entirely different opera.
Although I was partly ill when seeing it, I wanted to see it through. It's an opera I have wanted to experience for eons. WNO's production of Berg's only other opera, Wozzeck was also a phenomenal event. It was their first new production at their new home, the WMC, back in 2004. It is very much a miniature of opera, lasting a mere hour-and-a-half, whilst Lulu is double that and then some. But Berg never did complete the third act. The first full performance wasn't until the late 1970s.
I was still digesting the music when going home after the performance in my flu-like state. Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, the creator of twelve-tone music. This changed music forever. Yet Berg's music in the same vein was more sensual and seductive. Just like Lulu herself. Schoenberg may have disapproved of his pupils' handling of the radical new method of composition, but Berg's two operas are very much in the standard operatic repertoire. Surprisingly, there have been quite a few productions of Lulu over the years. It's fair game for bold, avant-garde stagings.
In the second act, these large lumps (shaped like breasts with apparent nipples) at the front of the stage are a sort of valley for the characters to dip in and out of this most bizarre of beds. At the end of the act, Lulu is yearning for Doctor SchÃ¶n's son, Alwa played by Peter Hoare. I have seen him in a lot of productions and his versatility never fails to astound me. But here, they are madly in love and Lulu decides to undress herself so they can begin... well I'm sure you know what follows. My jaw dropped to the floor when she actually was complete nude on stage. It's rare to see it in opera and is always a shock and kind of delight. My plus one said to me in the second interval that it is after all, "just a body". True, but it should be notified in their advertisements, so people know what to expect. I recall a WNO production of Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina with a nude dancer on a giant ball...
It was also sad to hear that Robert Poulton, who was cast as the Acrobat had died in a car accident last October. But his eldest son Tom has taken over the role in tribute to his father. A heart-warming thing to hear.
The last act sees Lulu lose all her money and have to retreat to London with Alma (who now has syphilis) and Countess Geschwitz, played by Natascha Petrinsky. Her lesbian character can be seen as one of the first in theatre, opera and film, and is infatuated with Lulu and gets her out of a lot of hairy situations. But Lulu has had to resort to prostitution and is killed on her first day by none other than Jack the Ripper (in a Brechtian twist, the role is played by the same singer who plays Doctor SchÃ¶n).
This is an absolutely terrifying ending with the bruising amount of noise that comes out of the orchestra just after Lulu's cries in German of "Nien... nien... nein! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!" The Ripper then stabs the Countess who concludes the opera with confirmation of her undying love for Lulu. We see Lulu smeared against the misty plastic centre of the stage, nude once more and smeared with blood. A particularly depressing third act and ending. My plus one said the noise coming from the pit scared her at this point, much to my enjoyment. But the Animal Tamer from the very beginning comes back on stage and holds up something in his hand. I didn't see what he had and would really like to know what it was. Perhaps some sort of symbolic item?
I have watched some extracts of Lulu on YouTube, but it's no good. It's doesn't compare. The music won't grant you this. You have to give it your all. You want to get back to the music once more and give into and embrace the alluring charms of Lulu...
Soprano Barbara Hannigan said in a recent talk that she felt she had Stockholm syndrome and survivor's guilt whislt playing Lulu. She confessed it was the greatest role she has played and even the mentioning of the name Lulu, would reduce her to tears. This is the effect Lulu has on people. She is the type of person you would love to know, but could very well find yourself fleeing from her.
This is a very darkly comic and sordid work, yet certainly a masterpiece of 20th century opera.
By far, the best show I have seen this year.
IMAGE: Clive Barda for WNO