Lulu, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff, February 2013

Alban Berg’s Lulu, mostly written in 1934, was only performed in a complete version for the first time in 1979. Berg died in 1935, and after his widow could not get Schoenberg, nor Webern or Zemlinsky, to write an orchestration of Act III she refused any attempt at completion, and so it remained until she died more than forty years after her husband.

Lulu and Countess Geschwitz, all images WNO/ Clive Barda

Lulu and Countess Geschwitz, all images WNO/ Clive Barda

Complete productions are much to be desired because in Berg’s unique musical language the three acts hang together, and David Pountney has done us the great service of staying true to the composer’s vision, and indeed that of Frank Wedekind, who wrote the two plays on which it is based. If you saw the Covent Garden production by Christof Loy in 2009, a coldly unrealistic concert-like performance, be assured this is utterly different. Colourful, yet capable of huge coldness towards the end, courtesy of Mark Jonathan’s clever lighting, this production allows us to see Lulu’s abject amorality and the fascination she exerts on those around her.

Schön and Lulu

Schön and Lulu

Johan Engels’ set recalls the circus of the prologue, perhaps even the meta-human achievements of the 2012 Olympics, and the animal heads used in Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes recall the convergence of humanity and inhumanity in The Story of O. The bowler hats represent the world outside, as do the umbrellas in the final scene, where Lulu meets her end in a dreary post-Dickensian London.

After each of her three husbands dies earlier in the opera he is hung on the set and lifted high up, remaining there until the end when each returns in a different guise. This helps exhibit the symmetry of Berg’s opera, centred as it is on the incarceration of Lulu after the death of her husband, Dr. Schön. She kills him herself and he returns as Jack the Ripper. Heady stuff, with Lulu as nemesis to the desire and fascination she evokes, the earth spirit in the first part of Wedekind’s drama.

Lulu, Act I sc.3

Lulu, Act I sc.3

Marie Arnet did a superb job of bringing this Erdgeist to stage, secure in voice and sure in characterization under David Pountney’s direction. Here is something far more than a femme fatale. She is a creature of the spirit world that lurks in our unconscious, befitting the deeply intellectual milieu that produced Freud and the music of the Second Viennese School. Some excellent singing too from others in the cast, with Natascha Petrinsky particularly notable as Lulu’s lesbian lover and admirer, the Countess Geschwitz. Ashley Holland gave a sound performance as Dr. Schön, with Peter Hoare giving a brilliantly incisive portrayal as Lulu’s lover and Schön’s son Alwa. Richard Angas came over very well as the animal tamer and Schigolch, as did Mark LeBrocq as the Artist in Act I reincarnated as the Negro in Act III, Patricia Orr as the schoolboy and other roles, Julian Close as the Acrobat, and Alan Oke was superb as Prince, Manservant and Marquis in the three acts.

Conducting by Lothar Koenigs brought out the full range and value of Berg’s extraordinary score, and in Pountney’s hands this was a production to savour. When Lulu is incarcerated after the death of Schön, her Freiheit removed like Freia in Wagner’s Ring, there was a similar lassitude that could only be relieved by her escape. And talking of the Ring, the patch over Schigolch’s eye, and his appearance at the end, reminded me of Wagner’s Wanderer in Siegfried.

This was a rip-roaring success for WNO, and if you don’t know the story of the opera, read it up first and buy a programme for the excellent essays it contains.

Performances at the Wales Millennium Centre continue until February 23, after which it tours to: The Birmingham Hippodrome, 5 Mar; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, 12 Mar; The Mayflower, Southampton, 19 Mar; Milton Keynes Theatre, 26 Mar; Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 2 Apr — for details click here.

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