Review — Lulu, Royal Opera, June 2009

This extraordinary opera by Alban Berg is about a femme fatale named Lulu, whose actions cause the death of three husbands, and two other lovers. The opera starts with a short prologue in which a circus animal-tamer presents his charges, including Lulu representing a snake. The rest of the opera is in three acts only two of which were complete at Berg’s death in 1935. The third act was only orchestrated in 1979, by Friedrich Cerha, because Berg’s widow refused to allow anyone to complete her husband’s work on Act III after one or two famous composers originally declined. It was a pity it took so long, because the opera is a dramatic whole, as one can see from a summary of the main action.

The three husbands are: a professor of medicine named Dr. Goll, an unnamed painter, and Dr. Schön, in that order. Other lovers include Schön’s son, Alwa, and the Countess Geschwitz. At the end Lulu works as a casual prostitute in London, and all three husbands reappear as clients, one being Jack the Ripper, who kills her. Alwa and the Countess are also killed in random violence

Here are more details of the action. While married to Goll, Schön is Lulu’s lover, and he and Alwa visit Lulu who is having her picture painted. After they leave, Lulu has sex with the painter, and when Goll returns the shock kills him. Lulu then marries the painter, continuing her affair with Schön, who buys all the painter’s work to sustain them. When the poor fellow realises he’s a cuckold living on the money of his wife’s lover he kills himself. Lulu then ensnares Schön, breaking his engagement to someone else, and marrying him. Like Goll, he returns home to find her with lovers: his son Alwa, an athlete named Rodrigo (a bodybuilder, sung by the same man as the animal-tamer), a schoolboy, and the Countess Geschwitz. He hands Lulu a gun to kill herself but she kills him instead, and goes to prison for murder. The Countess helps her escape, and she goes off with Alwa. Lulu and Alwa live a high life in Paris, but she’s on the run from Germany and the athlete reappears, with a Marquis who is a pimp, wanting to blackmail her and sell her to a brothel in Cairo. Lulu then escapes to London where she lives as a casual prostitute, along with Alwa and an old man named Schigolch from her past life. In the final scene Lulu meets three clients, played by her three dead husbands, and the Countess Geschwitz reappears. The second client kills Alwa in an argument over payment, and the third one turns out to be Jack the Ripper, who kills Lulu, and on the way out kills the Countess.

This new production by Christof Loy was roundly booed at the end, and quite rightly. It looked more like a concert performance than anything else, with all performers in black suits or black dresses, and an almost bare stage. Apparently there was some mess going on at the extreme stage right, but it was not visible to half the audience, including me. That is a serious fault, of course, but there were plenty more. For example, you’d think the designer could manage to put Lulu in a dress on the occasion when one of her admirers sings of her lovely ankle and calf, but no — she was in a trouser suit with no shoes, and her trousers reached down to her heels. If that is merely a costume glitch, how about the fact that the painter dies by his own hand, and the surtitles confirm it, yet Alwa swung an axe at him, and he fell down dead.

As to the performers, Lulu was sung by Agneta Eichenholz, who showed no sexuality whatsoever. It was impossible to understand what anyone saw in her, whereas Jennifer Larmore as the Countess Geschwitz seemed most desirable, and mysteriously sexy. The best performer of all was Michael Volle as Dr. Schön; he was simply terrific both in his voice and stage presence. Schön’s son Alwa was well performed by Klaus Florian Vogt, and Schigolch by Gwynne Howell. Dr. Goll was Jeremy White, the painter was Will Hartman, the athlete/animal-trainer was Peter Rose, and the schoolboy was Heather Shipp. The marquis was very well sung by Philip Langridge, and the orchestra was beautifully conducted by Antonio Pappano, though some may feel the music was too rounded at the edges, lacking astringency, but this is a matter of taste. Musically it worked very well, except that Agneta Eichenholz seemed out of her depth as Lulu, but what ruined the evening was the production. The spoken dialogue was miked-up, while the singing was not, which created a strange atmosphere as performers switched from one to the other. I shall not go back for a second visit, and I only hope the same producer does a far better job with Tristan und Isolde in the autumn.

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