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Berg's bare soul and bare stage

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
06/04/2009 -  & 8, 10, 13, 17, 20 June 2009
Alban Berg: Lulu (Act 3 realized by Friedrich Cerha)
Agneta Eichenholz (Lulu), Peter Rose (Animal trainer/Athlete), Klaus Florian Vogt (Alwa), Michael Volle (Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper), Will Hartmann (Painter/Policeman/Negro), Jeremy White (Professor of Medicine/Theatre Manager/Banker/Professor), Gwynne Howell (Schigolch), Heather Shipp (Dresser/Schoolboy/Groom), Philip Langridge (Prince/Manservant/Marquis), Jennifer Larmore (Countess Geschwitz), Kostas Smoriginas (Journalist), Manservant (Vuyani Mlinde), Monika-Evelin Liiv (Gallery owner), Frances McCafferty (Mother), Simona Mihai (15 year old girl)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Christof Loy (director), Herbert Murauer (designs), Eva-Mareike Uhlig (costume co-designer), Reinhard Traub (lighting design)

Agneta Eichenholz (© Clive Barda)

My God, Covent Garden's finance department must be dreading this. In the Spring, in a recession and without a major star, selling three atonal hours of sexual abuse, murder and suicide to casual operagoers must be a masterpiece of marketing persuasion. Conventional and lavishly cast Traviatas and Barbiere's lurk round the schedule like safety nets. Nor does it help that Lulu's devoted admirers were spoiled by Richard Jones' colorful ENO production as recently as 2005, although Covent Garden, quite rightly, feel that 26 years without their own Lulu is long enough.

It is a pleasure to report, then, that Covent Garden's risk taking has paid off. With only minor reservations, this is a triumph and must be seen. The best news is Lulu, herself: Agneta Eichenholz. This Swedish soprano was a late replacement for Aleksandra Kurzak and she sang her debut in both the role and the venue with unnerving confidence. Lulu is a tricky part to cast, halfway between Salome and Cabaret. I have always wondered, quite seriously, what Lesley Garrett would have done with the role, especially when the role was so successfully sung by Anneliese Rothenberger, Germany's operetta queen. Although there has been a recent fashion for having more dramatic voices in the role, one can't ignore the fact that the role's high-lying tessitura and creepy, little girl demeanor, clashing shockingly with the heavyweight voices and orchestration around her, demand a more nimble sound. Eichenholz with her lovely, soubrettish timbre (reminiscent of Rothenberger's), makes a surprising and welcome return to this girlish view.

Lulu's kinky allure is usually portrayed by tight cleavage, or baby doll dresses but Christof Loy's blank, minimalist production keeps Lulu, demurely, in a simple, classy dress, making her at once a captive of her middle class surroundings. Throughout the whole evening the stage consists of a simple back wall of opaque glass, lit sometimes under brutal florescence, at other times back lit to expressionist effect. With her striking and delicate features, Eichenholz brilliantly suggests her need to be respectable and her carnal compulsion to move on. It's a different physical portrayal and it works. Her detachment and, then suddenly, her unnerving smiles and laughter only underline the helplessness of the needy, emotionally wrecked men surrounding her.

Jennifer Larmore is a rare sight on London stages now and her bel-canto career made her a surprise choice for Berg. After an initial, hooty start, her voice warmed into a dramatic and enigmatic portrayal of Geschwitz. This lesbian countess blends into the surrounding male society in her trouser suit, a welcome development from the floral prints and cigarette holder portrayal of other productions. As though inspired by Bergman's Persona, Lulu and the countess end up morphing into one another, at once visually explaining Lulu's escape from prison, as well as emphasizing the one mutually tender relationship in the opera. Wisely, Loy does not show us the painting of Lulu but instead has Geschwitz almost blinded by a fixed spotlight, allowing our own mind to ponder.

These are some of the many inspired ideas in a staging that, nevertheless, does not quite gel. I am still not convinced that a minimalist staging serves Lulu that well. When Lulu utters the delightfully sick line, "Isn't that the sofa on which your father bled to death?", when seducing her dead husband's son, Loy's weak solution, in the absence of any set or props, is to have them stare into space. Likewise, the many deaths in this piece are well handled until the body pretentiously wakes up and wanders off stage in the absence of anyone to drag them off. Slightly passé, too, is the visual grammar: abstract grays, everyone in bland suits and surreal, smudged make up. A little more humour, too, wouldn’t go amiss. Eichenholz managed to cut through her haughtiness and ice with a mocking smile but the staging itself remains cold.

Loy is helped by a cast willing to do a lot with very little. Michael Volle, last seen in Covent Garden's so-so Salome, sang a superb Dr. Schön, his dark, nutty voice being ideal. He and Loy cleverly brought out the childishness of Schön's personality, his neediness and subsequently motivating Lulu's control of him. His Jack the Ripper was all the more scary for being played blankly and sweatily, a bland man with a grudge.

I am thoroughly enjoying Philip Langridge's second career as a brilliant character actor, still in fine voice. His prince was skin-crawlingly effete and naive, whereas his blackmailing Marquis was played deadly straight. Leaving a trail of slime was Gwynne Howell, also in ENO's Lulu, singing Schigolch with both sleaze and ease. Even now, he possesses one of the smoothest bass voices, and with his shambolic gait and dress, he gave his character the right feel of decadence. Both Will Hartmann and, Bayreuth favourite, Klaus Florian Vogt gave well-sung, detailed portrayals.

It is this cohesion of the cast where Loy does deserve praise. Operatic gestures were non-existent and the singers, especially Eichenholz, trusted stillness and their facial expressions. I have also rarely seen such a physically ideal cast. From Peter Rose's paunch to Alwa's bland city banker look, one had the sense of Pappano and Loy casting the opera from the text. On a similar note, the entire cast had crystal clear diction, helped presumably by the cast being prominently German.

Bringing all of this together is Antonio Pappano's conducting. Seven years ago he gave us a chilling, unerringly structured view of Wozzeck. Lulu is a different challenge altogether. So many conductors give in to Berg and Cerha's episodic structure and stop and stare at each motif. Although the orchestra played with sensual warmth, detail, and colour, the forward momentum never lapsed and they were not afraid to give us ugly sounds when warranted. Pappano never worries the music and he proved that you can make Berg as easy to listen to as a Haydn symphony. This is the first time I heard Cerha's completion really slot into the structure of Berg's first two acts.

All in all, this Lulu is musically stunning and, for all the stagings flaws and pretensions, it is a worthy answer, nay a companion piece, to ENO's production.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Barnaby Rayfield



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