Monday, 15 June 2015

Berg - Lulu (Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Alban Berg - Lulu

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2015

Kirill Petrenko, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Marlis Petersen, Daniela Sindram, Rachael Wilson, Rainer Trost, Bo Skovhus, Matthias Klink, Hartmut Welker, Martin Winkler, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Christian Rieger, Heike Grötzinger, Andrea Borghini - 6 June 2015

As many times as Lulu is produced and reinterpreted and as many times as Alban Berg's unfinished opera is reworked, the central character, like the opera itself, remains something of an enigma. Much can be made of the ambiguous and enigmatic character of Lulu in the first Act, where her essence is captured by the Artist in a painting. It's a painting that earns him fame and fortune, but it is also ultimately responsible for his madness, suicide and death. You would expect any modern production of this still very modern and challenging opera to make something of the implications this has for nature of the work itself, as well as the themes it covers. You can also be fairly sure that these won't be neglected in a production by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

Tcherniakov finds an effective way to depict Lulu and the work itself as an enigma by using a set built entirely of glass compartments. Everything appears to be open and transparent on the surface, but in reality it conceals an invisible maze-like structure. Painted onto the wall of this opera/this life is the Artist's portrait of Lulu, a bare life-sized outline, an abstraction, unfinished, not quite connected. The outline is filled in by what appears occasionally behind - sometimes one of the main players pressed to the glass, trying to grasp hold of the portrait of Lulu, or simply pinned to it, unable to escape the force it exerts. At other times, the glass compartments each show a world of other couples, each in the same universal struggle between man and woman.

It's a very high concept then, one which is apparently very simple on the surface but which is representative of the enigma of the opera itself and its construction. It manages to express small moments and insights, as well as being able to relate to them as having universal and a 'meta' application. This is Lulu as an exhibit, a reflection of what others want to see in her, of the complexity of the personality of Lulu herself and her relationships with each of the other characters, but the glass structure also forces the viewer to reflect on what it says about their own life and relationships, looking into a mirror, comparing and contrasting. In theory and in purely visual terms, it's an impressive concept, but the reality is that it doesn't have a great deal of anything new to say about Lulu.

As clever and as simple as the idea is, and despite trying to find a consistent line to follow that might provide a key to the work as a whole, Tcherniakov's Lulu only expresses and perhaps even just deepens the enigma. You can't fault the idea of exploring the central relationship of Lulu and Dr. Schön (who transforms in the final act into Jack the Ripper) which the director states he uses as his focus for the work, but the results aren't in any way new or revelatory. He's not wrong either in trusting that the superb singers cast in these roles are more than capable of expanding and filling in on the complex personalities at work here, but any deeper understanding of Lulu the person and Lulu the opera remains elusive.

That might just be a problem with the nature of the work itself. I certainly don't think you can seriously fault Marlis Petersen for the committed performance she gives here as Lulu. It's brilliantly sung and full of personality - perhaps a little too much even. Lulu here has something of a cruel streak, a more conscious flirtatious edge that expresses her own personality, showing her as more than just a plaything in the hands of a number of men. There's a growing dominance and imposition of her will as the work progresses, which - considering her background and treatment - inevitably becomes twisted into something broken and self-destructive. And yes, as Tcherniakov intends, it's made clear how this path of self-destruction is tied up in her relationship with Dr. Schön.

As Dr. Schön, Bo Skovhus provides a singing and dramatic performance more than strong enough to work alongside Petersen's intense Lulu. As much however as the two of them create a strong central core that can be seen as progressing through the fractured narrative structure, Lulu still remains unfathomable in relation of how she fits into the world. Or how she doesn't fit into it. Lulu remains an abstraction, and Tcherniakov's closed compartmentalised sets unfortunately contribute to this sense of dislocation and unreality. Justification for it can certainly be found in the structure of Berg's score and the episodic nature of the drama itself, but as much as the performers give to the work individually, it still never quite seems to add up to any illumination of the whole. This Lulu remains an outline to be filled in by the viewer's own interpretation. As it always did.

The variety of tones and the structure is, of course, in the nature of the work itself. If Tchernaikov wasn't able to bring anything to it or draw any clear dramatic or psychological thread through the work, Kirill Petrenko at least managed to find a consistent tone (using the Friedrich Cerha completed Third Act version) that nonetheless incorporated all its rich musical variety of expression. There was a more lushly orchestrated sweep through the whole of the work and less of the jagged-edged dissonances that could be highlighted. All the extraordinary textures and tempi of the work were nonetheless weaved right through the performance, providing a Lulu that was far more interesting to listen to than engage with dramatically.

The next Bayerische Staatsoper live broadcast is Pelléas et Mélisande on July 4th.

Links:, Medici