There was booing at the close of Covent Garden’s latest new production Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, provoked by a staging that was a no-no, no furniture, no décor but screens, and a singer in the title-role without projection, charm or lustre; and a cast not permitted to make gestures. The singing however was spot-on and the orchestral playing, under music director, Antonio Pappano, was very fine.
The producer/director (I was there for the first of the run, June 4) was Christof Loy who writes in the programme book: “…my recent productions have been increasingly minimalist, aesthetically and gesturally.” Ouch!
But the orchestra in Lulu is gestural in the extreme, like a sea of seething emotions, sensual, some would say erotic. Yet the performers on stage were hamstrung, with no furniture, no props, and no gestures. The three male corpses were not allowed to stay dead; after some minutes they got up and walked off the stage! And the protagonist, Lulu herself, was miscast. No doubt the music staff checked on her voice, that she was capable of coping with Berg’s demands, her music covers a big range from bottom C to the stratosphere. Fine. The Swedish soprano, Agneta Eichenholz, was up to the mark in this respect. But did the staff find out if she could portray this femme fatale – she is too mature to be called a sex kitten, she is more like a sex cat – and could she convince us that she was so wildly attractive to men that they would die in the attempt to possess her? I think not. Without these qualities Lulu can even become boring, especially if drably dressed in a production that lacked suitable realism.
So we had a situation in which the singing and playing was outstanding but the behaviour on stage thoroughly unconvincing.
Within these limits the cast did its best, in particular Klaus Florian Vogt as Alwa, Michael Volle as his father Dr. Schön, and Jennifer Larmore, the faithful lesbian Grafin Geschwitz (now she was sexy all right!)
Poor Alban Berg; he died in 1935 at the age of fifty as the result of a sting (where the bee sucked, there died Berg). He had completed the vocal score of the final act but not orchestrated it. Friedrich Cerha finished it off. What Berg did complete was an orchestral suite in six movements which personally I find more satisfactory than the opera itself. And I have a hunch (unconfirmed) that Berg composed first the accompaniment, the orchestral part of the opera and then added the vocal parts. Because the balance is often faulty, the voices often muddy, the texture preventing the music from projecting its full emotional force, with its slithering strings, sexy saxophone, trenchant piano chords and sensual harmonies.
Also, the plot is difficult to follow on stage, these are so many characters, some without sufficient dramatic substance. And the third act is too long. (Isn’t Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck, superior, a true masterpiece, convincing in a way that Lulu is not, despite its many gorgeous moments of iridescent, orchestral, marvels?)
What a shame that the careful and loving vocal and orchestral preparation of Berg’s final work was let down by a wilful and surely wrong-headed stage director!