Lulu, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2016

For those who saw this same William Kentridge production in live cinema relay from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the performance on the stage of the London Coliseum is a revelation. Seeing all the action all the time, the mime artists, the subtle animations of charcoal drawings on the printed pages of a dictionary with their overlap and unlayering, helps bring out the symmetry of Berg’s music and the continuity that informs its separate scenes.

All images ENO/ Catherine Ashmore

All images ENO/ Catherine Ashmore

Alban Berg distilled his opera from Frank Wedekind’s two Lulu plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), born of the playwright’s own youthfully erotic bohemian life. Lulu is the earth spirit, a femme fatale that captures men’s fantasies and draws them to a destruction that she herself experiences at the end, as various lovers reappear in reverse order ending with her erstwhile protector Dr. Schön, whom she earlier shot dead. As Jack the Ripper he murders her protectors, Schön’s son Alwa and the Countess Geschwitz, before killing her. These four (Lulu, Schön, Alwa and Geschwitz), along with her first husband Dr. Goll and the mysterious older man Schigolch, are the only named characters, all Wedekind’s secondary ones rendered anonymous: painter, athlete, banker, etc.

Schön, Alwa and Lulu

Schön, Alwa and Lulu

This first night performance was an A-team success under the wonderfully incisive baton of Mark Wigglesworth (how sad that he resigned from the ENO). Diction in Richard Stokes’s brilliant English translation was superb throughout, rendering surtitles superfluous and giving greater impact to the spoken dialogue. Preferable in my view to the Met’s performance in German.

Lulu, Schön and mime artist

Lulu, Schön and mime artist

Brenda Rae made a rivetingly effective Lulu, James Morris a commandingly hedonistic Schön, Sarah Connolly an adoringly self-effacing Geschwitz, and Nicky Spence a brilliantly clear Alwa. With excellent contributions from Willard White as Schigolch, David Soar as the Animal Tamer and Athlete, Michael Colvin as the Painter, Clare Presland as the Schoolboy and other roles, along with superb musicality from the mime performers Joanna Dudley and Andrea Fabi, plus other singers, this was a terrific team success. And not just from the cast, but from Kentridge’s whole production crew with sets by Sabine Theunissen and costumes by Greta Goiris that capture the era, plus lighting by Urs Schönebaum and video designs by Catherine Mayburgh that illuminate the Bergian canvas beautifully portrayed by this production.

Lulu and Geschwitz

Lulu and Geschwitz

There is no comparison with the Royal Opera’s cold and unrevivable Christof Loy production from 2009, and after a mere five performances the ENO should certainly revive this in coming years. It was only in 1979, after the death of Berg’s widow, that the three-act completion by Friedrich Cerha could finally be performed. Since luminaries such as Schoenberg and Webern had turned her down she concluded that her husband’s work should never be completed. She was wrong. This is a masterpiece.

Performances continue on various dates until November 19 — for details click here.

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