Live | Welsh National Opera’s Lulu

Nigel Jarrett witnesses the latest production from Welsh National Opera, a sumptuous retelling of Alban Berg’s Lulu.

It’s repeating a commonplace to assert that of the music written by the three members of the so-called Second Viennese School, Alban Berg’s is the most easily assimilated. But that’s not saying much. The dense romanticism from which the three were moving away is more than glimpsed through the threadbare veil of contemporaneity that was Berg’s concession to the atonal. Berg simply couldn’t let go and thus came to a halt in his own version  of  atonality’s dead end. (That’s ‘dead’ in the sense of not having convinced the larger listening public.)  Push it this far or push it farther, the verdict of posterity is the same. Posterity, of course, is a stubborn duffer, especially where developments in music are concerned. It may still come to consider that Schoenberg and Webern especially were on to something. Not yet, though, even eighty years later.

Berg’s distinguishing features represent the first context in which new productions of his opera Lulu have to be examined.  The second is the phenomenon of the musical work as torso, or rather as body minus arm and leg, and the attempts by others to make it whole or workable by completing music left incomplete at the composer’s death.  More has been written about Lulu as a deficient legacy than about how it deals with its subject-matter and narrative.  Berg left two acts and a  Lulu suite that included two movements taken from what was intended to be the final act’s music.  He left enough of an opera, however, that is decadent, tawdry and, even by today’s standards, bizarre. Not even the humanity of Berg’s Wozzeck, or the humanity extrapolated from Wozzeck’s emblematic characters, prepares us for it. Moreover, the listener’s attention is temporarily diverted from these considerations by the way Lulu’s degeneracy is bathed in music of ostentatious beauty. Completion is always going to be not so much controversial as newsworthy. The first was by composer Friedrich Cerha and the first performance of his version given in 1979 in Paris. As workable limbs Cerha’s conclusion, albeit cluttered, functions pretty well. But it can never be the final word because there can be none, any more than the completed Turandot can be.

The latest contender in the case of Lulu is Eberhard Kloke. His completed version was first performed in Copenhagen in 2010 and it’s the one taken up in WNO’s new production by its artistic director, David Pountney. Whereas Cerha’s transition to the third act and the act itself are musically more or less of a piece, Kloke adopts a different tack which the ear can soon pick up. Something has happened that isn’t entirely conditioned by the turn of dramatic events. It’s a kind of gear change. The orchestral palette has become generally more muted and there’s an onstage trio of pianist, violinist and accordion player that adds nothing to the weird goings-on, which in the sense of avoiding a collision with what Berg himself might have prescribed, is just as well. Kloke’s prosthetic does not in any case offer sufficient diversion from the narrative thrust, which by the middle of act three is travelling pretty speedily towards the opera’s grisly dénouement. He retains what Berg had already orchestrated and provides opportunities for director and performers to curtail over-long passages. He also reverts in places to Cerha’s version. This context of the opera, that of a workable conclusion to a musically inconclusive work, need not detain us in the matter of detail. Kloke’s is certainly not going to mar any appreciation of what went before, as Pountney’s gripping production proves. It’s simply a means by which the opera in its entirety can be performed with some kind of service being done to its creator. Berg would probably have approved of Cerha’s and Kloke’s wraps. One assumes they were labours of love, not exercises in self-aggrandisement.

Marie Arnet (Lulu) and Peter Hoare (Alwa) Credit: Clive Barda
Marie Arnet (Lulu) and Peter Hoare (Alwa)
Credit: Clive Barda

The third context is the place of Pountney’s production in his vision for WNO’s future. For the first time that anyone can recall, audiences turning up for the first night of Lulu were offered not the usual slim, printed programme dealing just with the opera they were about to attend but a 164-page paperback book that also included information about the season’s other two operas – Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. The binding principle is that the season’s offerings are themed and that the three heroines this time are free spirits. As an artistic  and commercial innovation it’s interesting. There’s more to come. Luck has it  that Joachim Herz’s 1978 production of Butterfly is still in repertory, making Cio-Cio-San’s defiance of convention in the pursuit of love the freedom being illustrated.

Lulu’s freedom to love – in this story love and lust are controversially interchangeable – is frustrated by the conditions her suitors place on it, though in her search for unfettered romance she’s what today might be called a tart, something which militates against the lofty ideas of freedom and spiritedness which launches the production and its themed relatives. Lots of mush has been penned about this opera and its meanings, such as they are. The first thing to note is that neither the opera itself, nor Pountney nor the casting and performance of  Swedish soprano Marie Arnet in the title role offers an immediate clue to the source of the character’s sexual allure. This is dodgy critical ground of the sort occupied when a hefty soprano playing the teenage geisha that is Butterfly forces one to extend suspension of disbelief. Arnet sometimes struggles with Lulu’s shrill coloratura, though the part is no gift even for a strapping singer with a more accessible upper reach The sexiness of Arnet’s Lulu is a hidden manifest and no worse for that. It makes her even more interesting voyeuristically, and when she disrobes at one point it’s as if we are being shown what we thought might have been missing. Pountney’s is a sexy show on all counts. Apart from this more or less full Monty, the ‘portrait’ of Lulu executed by the Artist (Mark Le Brocq) is a jumble of mannequin parts or interchangeable erogenous zones and at one stage Lulu and the lesbian Geschwitz cavort on a bed moulded in the form of a giant Beryl Cook character in a bikini. Everything happens on and inside designer Johan Engels’s towering metal cage, which remains on stage throughout, encloses the opera’s human ‘animals’ and functions as the vault into which the male martyrs in the cause of Lulu’s fatal attraction are hoisted like so much trussed meat. It also houses the room in which at the end Lulu is murdered by Jack the Ripper in shocking Hitchcockesque fashion.

The opera’s argument, whatever it is, could be put in a much-curtailed form. The current length only invites more speculation on what Berg actually saw in the two plays by Frank Wedekind on which he based his libretto. The animal emblem of Lulu as a serpent and the fugitive identity of Schigolch (the wondrous Richard Angas) as a controller or father-figure have Biblical connotations, while the anxiety of fluctuating share prices in act three, allied to all that’s been happening, suggests a political dimension. In the light of the hang-ups of contemporary Vienna, it might also be telling us as much about Berg, himself a bourgeois belonging to a class of society polluted by greed and licentiousness, as anything else. A lot of the time everyone on stage just seems to be having a good operatic time, the tribulation of Dr Schon (Ashley Holland), Alwa (Peter Hoare) and the rest of Berg’s motley crew notwithstanding. None of it takes anything away from Pountney’s vivid realisation. This one’s a winner, especially as it’s buoyed by a score played ravishingly by Lothar Koenigs and the WNO orchestra. Only the saxophone and vibraphone could have done with winding up. They need to be heard because they are defining orchestral sounds of this era, and more than anything Lulu is of its time. As Philip Hensher has noted, the two instruments became part of a characteristically early-1980s orchestral style as contemporary music moved on from atonality but sometimes not that far from Berg’s ambivalent attitude towards it. Lulu is of its time but a time that’s closer to us than we like to think.

Banner photograph: Ashley Holland as Dr Schon Credit: Clive Barda