Tuesday 15 November 2016

Berg - Lulu (English National Opera. 2016)

Alban Berg - Lulu

English National Opera, 2016

Mark Wigglesworth, William Kentridge, Luc De Wit, Brenda Rae, Sarah Connolly, Michael Colvin, James Morris, Nicky Spence, Willard White, David Soar, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Clare Presland, Graeme Danby, Sarah Labiner, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Sarah Champion, Geoffrey Dolton, Joanna Dudley, Andrea Fabi

The Coliseum, London - 12th November 2016

Every time I see it, I marvel at how dense a work Lulu is and how frustrating it is to get a grasp on. It's never a question of liking or loving it - it's a work of art that lies beyond such superficial considerations. Lulu is an opera that demands engagement but at the same time keeps you at a distance. Almost by definition it's a piece whose meaning and wider application must remain elusive, since its main character herself must remain an enigma.

I can only imagine how much more difficult then it must be for the performers and directors to take on its musical challenges and at the same time draw it into something coherent and comprehensible for an audience. It must be a challenge of Ring-like proportions. Lulu is a work that leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but at the same time it defies any attempt to pin it down. Or if not so much interpretation, it demands artistic engagement. Whether on the part of the singers - particularly in the leading role - or the director, there's room to make a mark, place a personal stamp on the raw material that Berg provides.

Although it almost adds another level of complexity that for the sake of attention and focus it could well do without, William Kentridge's production for the English National Opera is an almost perfect way to approach Lulu, being neither illustrative or interpretative. Using projections of bold Indian ink sketches and splatters on a canvas of text, William Kentridge's designs address the question of art within Lulu, and in doing so they provide a new insight into the work. Lulu is not just a figure immortalised in a painting by the Artist, she is a living work of art. This is what gives Berg's opera its endless fascination at the same time as it frustrates the viewer and the director who attempts to pin it down.

The inability to pin Lulu down - she even resists attempts to give her just one name - is exactly what Kentridge brings to the production through his constantly reworked drawings, sketches and inkblots. Painted on top of blocks of newspaper or dictionary text, the illustrations are neither decorative nor illustrative of the drama, but perhaps more attuned to the music and to the art of the music. The images layer on top of one another, cutting and jumping, flipping reverses and mirror images, reflecting the impossibility of defining Lulu - the person, the opera, the concept, the idea - into one single image. Notoriously, Lulu is all things to all men; an object, the personification of men's lusts and desires who cannot possibly live up to the ideal.

In contrast to my usual experience with Lulu then, fascination with a production's attempts to define her or at least define the ideal gradually leading to frustration as the work slips away from any efforts to exert control over it, Kentridge's production had the opposite effect. Act I was the most frustrating since it didn't offer any 'vision'. The projections seemed to be little more than a series of gestures, slapdash ideas without any strong conceptual core behind them, offering no way of making the narrative any easier to follow, even if it has a distinct and attractive visual presence.

By Act II however, this constant reworking of the enigma of Lulu became mesmerising. You really do see the turning point in the reinstated 'film sequence', the moment that Lulu's ascendancy starts to decline, the moment her currency devalues and how afterwards she starts to become weary of the attentions of men, recoiling from the constant gaze, only to find that she has never had an identity of her own. Act III then becomes captivating in a way that productions using Friedrich Cerha's impressive efforts to complete the third Act of the work - the incomplete opera creating an enigma and fascination of its own - rarely achieve. The production leaves you with a sense that it has continually added to the picture of Lulu rather than taken away from her in her decline to a horrible end.

In fact, Kentridge and co-director Luc De Wit do make the fractured narrative of Berg's efforts to condense Wedekind's two 'Lulu' plays much easier to follow. Each of the characters is colourfully dressed, contrasting with the start black-and-white imagery of the projected ink illustrations. And not just colourfully dressed, but colourfully interpreted, each showing a distinct personality in character and in voice. Without the distraction of trying to work out who was who and who is married to Lulu now, the complexity of the relationship between the narrative, the production design and the difficult shifting musical landscape is actually much easier to grasp. Two silent figures of a man and a woman - dressed in black-and-white, the man wearing a newspaper head mask, the woman more Lulu-like - also add an indefinable quality of living artworks to the unspoken matters of the work. Even if if the principal character remains elusive, she is not a void.

A considerable part of the success of achieving that must lie with the singer performing the role of Lulu and Brenda Rae fulfilled the role marvellously. Aside from the technical challenges of the role, she brought an ideal tone and temperament that suited the intent of the production here. This Lulu as portrayed by Rae is neither lascivious nor hysterical, but essentially and necessarily human, as flawed and capable of misjudgment as anyone. If she is irresistible to men, it's clearly more of a projection of what the men impress on her than anything she initiates. She's more victim than vamp. Sarah Connolly is luxury casting for Countess Geschwitz and Nicky Spence made a great impression as Alwa, but there was much to admire in all of the cast; in James Morris's Dr Schön, Michael Colvin's Artist and David Soar's Athlete. With so much going on I always find it hard to take in Berg's huge complex score, but Mark Wigglesworth's conducting proved to be the unifying force for all its tones and styles, as well as for its dramatic content.

Links: English National Opera