Opéra National de Paris, 2011
Michael Schønwandt, Willy Decker, Laura Aikin, Jennifer Larmore, Andrea Hill, Marlin Miller, Wolfgang Schöne, Kurt Streit, Scott Wilde, Franz Grundheber, Robert Wörle, Victor Von Halem, Julie Mathevet, Marie-Thérèse Keller, Marianne Crebassa, Damien Pass, Ugo Rabec
Opéra Bastille, Paris - 18th October 2011
I know it’s considered one of the major works of 20th century opera, and it’s certainly one of the most important and influential works advocating the twelve-tone system – but I still find Lulu a difficult opera to love. Surprisingly, it’s less to do with the complexities of the musical arrangements, which actually feel perfectly fitting for the nature of the opera’s subject – with the use, abuse, decline and horrible murder of a woman at its core, it’s not supposed to be pretty – as much as failing to find a strong dramatic thread or conventional character development to grasp onto. But then, Alban Berg was presumably challenging these traditional concepts also.
It’s questionable then whether an opera that is built upon the deaths of many of Lulu’s lovers and which ends with her own murder as a prostitute at the hands of no less than Jack the Ripper, should be “prettified” by the impressive set designs and eye-catching choreography of Willy Decker’s production. Brightly lit with clean lines, Decker’s production has a sense of design and colour that makes it look like a Pet Shop Boys concert set in an IKEA store. Whether it looked appropriate or not, it at least felt right and, most importantly, it worked on a conceptual level, proposing an interesting new way of looking at Lulu.
Central to the opera and the image of Lulu is a portrait painted of her in the first scene of Act 1 – a critical scene that sets the tone for what is to follow. Interestingly, in Decker’s vision, the painting is made up of several canvasses that isolate and fetishise each part of her naked body like an exquisite corpse. An exquisite corpse – now that’s a great central concept and image for Lulu, for the objectification of the young woman under the gaze of countless men, each projecting their own lusts and desires upon a figure who is a composite of so many female and feminist archetypes.
That of course is the strength of the opera itself, but it’s also the aspect that is equally difficult to pin down dramatically or in any sense of characterisation, so Decker’s staging makes that a little more meaningful. Decker’s arrangements, placing the action within an arena for this combat of the sexes that ensues, the whole colourful cabaret watched over by a chorus of dark-suited anonymous figures in hats, all work towards this vision, even taking into consideration (definitely a part of the intention of Berg’s opera itself), the audience itself voyeuristically being a part of this woman’s abasement and destruction, all for their entertainment.
I still didn’t feel that I gained any greater understanding of the complicated parade of characters that flit through Lulu’s life (which may be a good thing), but every expression of lust, jealousy, joy, anguish, anger and violence was certainly fully felt and brought out in the production, in the singing and in the incredible performance of the Paris Orchestra. As compelling as events were on the stage, my attention was constantly drawn to Michael Schønwandt conducting the infinitesimally detailed score, drawing it all together remarkably. Lulu is one of Laura Aikin’s signature roles – I’ve seen her sing it before on DVD in a fine performance in Zurich under Franz Welser-Möst – but she still looks and sounds terrific. Utterly commanding in the role, she is riveting to watch. There were however no weak elements whatsoever in this production for the Paris Opéra, with Jennifer Larmore a wonderful Count Geschwitz, and Kurt Streit notable in the role of Alwa.
The production used the now common 1979 version of the opera, with the third act, left unfinished after Berg’s death in 1937, completed by Friedrich Cerha. The performance of the score by the Paris orchestra, as mentioned above, was something of a revelation – or perhaps, since this was the first time I had been to a live performance of Lulu, it just needs to be experienced in the theatre with a truly world class orchestra. That’s what we were treated to here, with the addition of great singing and a visually impressive but thoughtful stage production.