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They had it coming

04/30/2002 -  and 10, 16, 18, 23, 25, 28, 30 May
Alban Berg: Lulu
Lisa Saffer (Lulu), Susan Parry (Geschwitz), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Dresser/Schoolboy/Waiter), Graeme Danby (Professor of Medicine/Theatre Manager/Banker/First Client), Richard Coxon (Painter/Second Client), Robert Hayward (Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper), John Graham-Hall (Alwa), Gwynne Howell (Schigolch), Robert Poulton (Animal Tamer/Acrobat), Nigel Robson (African Prince/Manservant/Marquis)

Paul Daniel (conductor), Richard Jones

ENO Orchestra

The parents of Frank Wederkind, author of the plays on which Berg's Lulu is based, called him Benjamin Franklin. An American name was one of several points of similarity Wederkind shared with the late Billy Wilder. Wilder worked, briefly, in the sex industry while a struggling journalist; Wederkind, also a professional writer, was an enthusiastic customer. (You have to admire a man who tore a ligament in his jaw during a heavy session.) Both were cynical but obsessive observers of sex and human nastiness in all forms, and the Lulu plays, like Double indemnity or Ace in the hole, present the self-dramatization of the male ego on a massive scale, disrupted by the refusal of the women at the centre of the drama to play along.

A theatrical milieu is already an essential component of the earlier, Franco-German, genre to which the figure of Lulu herself belongs: she is called Mignon, after Wilhelm Meister's beloved, and the theatrical milieu is a recurring feature of both the picaresque and the Bildungsroman. As her many names suggest, Lulu is das Ewigweibliches in the contemporary flesh, a sister of Manon in her girlhood corruption and sleazy pimping relative but also in her many adventures defined but not controlled by her current "owner". The difference between Lulu and Manon and the rest is that she does not have one true lover: she is the only person who cares about her, although she always needs a man to run her. In this, she is also the grandmother of Roxy Hart in Chicago, another merry murderess who wants to be big in show business.

Richard Jones, in his new production at the ENO, shared with the New Israeli Opera Company and Frankfurt am Main, sees Lulu as an archetypical central European-American sleazy farce, with the sex made explicit and fun. The setting is a peepshow, and the animals are part of the kitsch decor of the Professor's home in the first scene, as well metaphors for human nature. The decor of each scene is entertaining in itself, amusingly camp in the first two acts in its satire of the different style of domesticity just as Lulu's costumes change to reflect the different men's fantasies about her (one of which is that she is Louise Brooks in Pabst's movie). There is much comic business, rushing to and fro in pursuit and hiding of erections, not only in the deliberate Viennese farce of the first scene of act 2. The frontage of the peepshow descends again at the end, and we are shown that Jack's knife is a stage knife with a retracting blade. The implication seems to be that the whole production is another projection of the director's, and the audience's, fantasies on to Lulu, who has as always survived intact, in one sense at least. Being dead is just another change of costume for her, or, perhaps, surviving is just another acrobatic trick.

Casting Lulu is always a problem. For many, Brooks still has strict control over the imagination, which reinforces the point that Lulu must be stunningly desirable and never a victim. Perhaps she shouldn't be as beautiful and classy as Brooks (like Roxy, she should probably be the sort of woman who could have a lip sore -- Alwa gets syphilis from her). And for Berg's Lulu, she must also have a high soprano voice with superb technique. Jones is extremely fortunate to have Lisa Saffer, who showed in Soldaten a few years ago that she can handle extreme vocal demands without drawing attention to them. Saffer also has great presence on stage and whatever else it is that Lulu has to have. As Lulu she knew what she was doing and dealt with everything as it came. Only Susan Parry's serious-minded Geschwitz seemed to faze her, to the point of irritation at least. But then just before she is murdered, Geschwitz sees the possibility of life outside sex, which makes her an alien spirit to Lulu.

The rest of the singers were a fine ensemble. Rebecca de Pont Davies was suitably confusingly androgynous as the dresser and the waiter with whom Lulu swaps clothes, and very funny as the schoolboy, a sort of randy molesworth. Richard Coxon was striking, and very lyrical, as the painter, Lulu's first husband, and John Graham-Hall full of sap and then horribly roué, grovelling with a dog chain around his neck in the last act. Gwynne Howell had a touch of Pierre Renoir as the disgusting Schigolch, who might be Lulu's father. Robert Hayward fell a bit short on the words, in contrast to the rest of the cast, but he was rock hard as Dr Schön, so that you were relieved when Lulu took him out; he got his own back, Punch and Judy style, as Jack the Ripper. Robert Poulton was his low-life sibling as the blackmailing acrobat.

Other than Saffer, though, the star of the evening was undoubtedly the ENO orchestra under Paul Daniel. There was no sense that the music was "difficult", or even strange. The performance was lushly romantic, powerful and intense, at times not far from Korngold's film music in effect, conveying a great sense of fun and swagger that was far from expressionist angst. This performance and production of the opera may have found it a place in the mainstream. It is certainly a badly needed triumph for the ENO.

H.E. Elsom



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