Adapted by Alban Berg from two turn-of-the-century plays by Frank Wedekind and first performed in 1937, Lulu takes two of opera’s favourite themes – the fallen woman and the femme fatale – to unsettling extremes.  Dancer Lulu is a manipulative siren with a powerful sexual hold over virtually any man that crosses her path. As the opera begins, her allure is sufficient to propel her through bourgeois society, but as her luck runs out and her beauty begins to fade, we witness her inevitable decline – a spiral that culminates in her working as a prostitute on the streets of London, only to fall prey to Jack the Ripper.

In this Blu Ray release of a 2009 staging – the first at Convent garden for 28 years – Christof Loy discards the period trappings that sometimes clutter Lulu productions in favour of a minimalist approach emphasising the expressionist qualities of Wedekind’s original plays. Loy’s reading swaps the decadence of WeimarGermany for the austere banality of postmodern capitalism: the stage is bare but for a few props and the backdrop is a black, metal-edged wall. The cast are clad in 90’s office wear. There is a purposely alienated quality to the way characters interact onstage; when no longer in the action, they simply turn their backs and stand facing the wall, like  deactivated automatons.

Loy’s take on the opera hits a determinedly post-feminist note. Abandoned to the gutter as a child, Lulu is damaged goods, an abused child with a dysfunctional relationship to men, especially her sugar-daddy and childhood saviour, Dr Schon.  Overt psychological profiling is a strategy increasingly used to explain the unpalatable behaviour of opera’s wicked women to a contemporary audience – think of David McVicar’s ConventGarden Salome, whose Dance of the Seven Veils included an interlude depicting the girl’s abuse on the knee of her step-father, Herod.  But, while it undoubtedly functions as an examination of the usury of men and the hypocrisies of patriarchal bourgeois society, Lulu is not an opera that fits neatly into such comfortable interpretations. There is an amoral wildness running through the opera that resists rationalisation. The material is of its time, ambivalent, and disturbing. The protagonist is very much a projection of male fears and fantasies, and the story takes an undeniable voyeuristic pleasure in charting Lulu’s descent.

At its best though, Loy’s grasp of the drama’s psychological underpinnings is thrillingly realised, peaking early in the emotionally and sexually charged exchanges between Lulu and Dr Schon. Loy’s handling of scene three of the first act, set in Lulu’s dressing room, brilliantly catches the fluid power relationship between these two characters. Desperate to thwart Schon’s engagement to a respectable society woman, Lulu threatens to run away to Africa with a male admirer.  His bluff called, Schon crumbles. After dictating a letter to him ditching his fiancée, Lulu smears Schon’s face with her stage make-up, feminising him, transforming him into a tragic and emasculated clown. In a matter of a few moments, we have seen just how in thrall this Alpha male is to his girl from the gutter.

More often than not, Loy’s attempt to take Lulu into a more relevant contemporary milieu pays dividends.  The 1990’s boardroom aesthetic means that the credit crunch resonances of the first scene of Act 3 are pointed up nicely. This is a crucial watershed in the opera: the moment when Lulu’s party guests receive the news that the railway shares they were investing in have crashed coincides with the point at which Lulu’s personal stock, her own social capital, also begins to fall.

The emphasis on bare-bones psychological theatre also has the advantage of allowing both the libretto and Berg’s lush score to come to the fore.   Yet such a denuded stage does present problems: in some scenes there is little sense of time, context or location, which will likely confuse anyone not familiar with the libretto.

In the lead role Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz, making her Covent Garden debut, strikes a suitably chilly, protean figure, by turns blank, bemused, amoral, child-like and vampish. A pale, high-boned Audrey Hepburn with a nice line in slinky dresses, she switches through Lulu’s many faces with cattish grace. Her light, silvery voice remains  secure throughout, coping admirably with the demands of Berg’s rollercoaster vocal lines.

In the third act Philip Langridge, who doubles as the Prince and the Manservant, is magnificently seedy and menacing as the pimp-Marquis, bouncing Lulu sleazily on his knee. But it’s Michael Volle’s peformance as Dr Schön that is this production’s centre of gravity. With his weighty tenor and compelling physicality, this singer throws himself into an electrifying externalisation of Schon’s inner life, his rendering of the character’s volatile mix of machismo and insecurity totally believable.

In the pit Antonio Pappano produces a transparent, almost chamber-like articulation of the score, saving the decibels for the big climaxes.  Every nuance of Berg’s multi-layered musical themes is exposed, and Pappano expertly balances the bold modernity of the twelve-tone orchestration with the unique emotional language and late romantic sweep that Berg brought to the serialism of his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg.

With its feel for the dark, anarchic undercurrents rippling beneath modern manners, at times this production seems to breathe the same air as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen;  indeed, Lulu herself is the sort of creation Vinterberg’s running mate Lars von Trier has become famous for depicting, in films similarly preoccupied with charting the outer limits of female suffering, and which share some of the opera’s Brechtian qualities.

Stripped of its vaudeville feathers, here Lulu feels more than ever like a sort of postmodern reworking of Greek theatre. With its curious purity and unflinching sense of focus, this is a Lulu for the Dogme generation.

 

 

 

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