Berg
Lulu – Opera in a prologue and three acts to a libretto by the composer after the plays Erdgeist and Die Büsche der Pandora by Frank Wedekind [performed with Act III realised by Friedrich Cerha; sung in German with subtitles in English, French, German and Spanish]
Lulu – Agneta Eichenholz
Dr Schön / Jack the Ripper – Michael Volle
Alwa – Klaus Florian Vogt
Countess Geschwitz – Jennifer Larmore
Schigolch – Gwynne Howell
Prince / Servant / Marquis – Philip Langridge
Painter / Policeman / Negro – Will Hartmann
Dr Goll / Theatre Manager / Banker / Professor – Jeremy White
Animal Trainer / Athlete – Peter Rose
Dresser / Schoolboy / Groom – Heather Shipp
Journalist – Kostas Smoriginas
Manservant – Vuyani Mlinde
Gallery Owner – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Mother – Frances McCafferty
15-Year-Old Girl – Simona Mihai

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Christof Loy – Director
Herbert Murauer – Designs
Eva-Mareike Uhlig – Costume Co-Designer
Reinhard Traub – Lighting design
Thomas Wilhelm – Movement Director
Robin Lough – Film Director

Recorded on 13 & 17 June 2009 at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Additional material: interviews with Agneta Eichenholz and Antonio Pappano
CD No: OPUS ARTE DVD
OA 1034 D (2 DVDs)
Duration: 3 hours 25 minutes [including bonus features]
Reviewed: June 2010
Christof Loy's production of Alban Berg's “Lulu” caused ructions when it was first seen at Covent Garden in June 2009. While there was a broad consensus of opinion with regard to the high quality of its musical values, Loy's staging aroused such heated passions that arguments raged over its worth in the letter pages of national newspapers. Loy's detractors, who were very much in the majority, argued that his stripped-back, minimalist approach had pared so much out of Berg's masterpiece that the work itself was in danger of vanishing in the process. His admirers – fewer in number, but equally vocal – claimed that he had captured its essence by the simplest and most striking means imaginable, and that this was, indeed, among the most intelligent productions to be presented by the Royal Opera in recent years.
Opus Arte has released the production on DVD, which means that those of us who, like myself, managed to miss it in the theatre, can gain some kind of idea as to just what caused such violently antithetical reactions. While the reasons are more than once apparent, I also confess to perplexity with it, in that watching it on film clearly differs sharply from anything anyone experienced in the theatre. Cameras can cover up flaws and shifts in perspectives, as well as expose truths, and some of the original critical comments, both positive and negative, seem very wide of the mark as a result.
Agneta Eichenholz as Lulu & Klaus Florian Vogt as Alwa. Photograph: Clive Barda Loy's starting point, it would seem, is the much repeated statement that Lulu herself is essentially a blank screen or canvas upon which society, embodied in the types that surround her, projects its responses to her sexuality. This is not, by any means the whole story of the opera, nor one with which Loy ultimately concurs, though the image is paramount when it comes to the design. The set is, quite literally, a blank screen that stretches across the stage. Reinhard Traub's complex lighting plot allows it to glow a silvery blue, fade to black, or occasionally become translucent, so that we can see Lulu's cabaret dance and fainting fit in Act One, for instance. In theatrical terms, this creates an immediate problem in that it confines entrances and exits to the sides of the stage, creating a certain sameness of directional movement. The cameras disguise some of this, but not all. It causes a notable problem in the final scene, when Jack takes Lulu to her room to murder her. The pair of them simply slope-off into the wings together, which strikes us as suddenly anticlimactic, and briefly lacking in imagination.
It was Loy's decision not only to impose neutrality of design, but also to dispense with all but a handful of props, that caused many of those initial disparaging comments. A single battered wooden chair comprises the rest of the set. The costumes, for the most part, are severe black, white and grey, and vaguely suggestive of the late 1950s or early 1960s. The men mostly wear suits, the women tight-ish dresses with pencil skirts, though the Painter, being bohemian, is permitted a blue shirt, Lulu dons a Dior-ish new-look dress when on display, and the Schoolboy sports a hoodie.
There are knives and guns and Geschwitz's flowers, when needed, but there is notably no portrait, a fact which caused considerable derision on first-night. In its place a spotlight picks out Lulu herself, standing alongside whoever happens to be contemplating her image at any given moment. The concept is occasionally fussy, though it allows Loy to play with the idea of the bifurcation between everyone's fantasies of Lulu and the woman she is in actuality. After her death, the spotlight returns, but is now empty, as Geschwitz contemplates “mein Engel”. The fantasies will persist when Lulu's life is over – but in order to take the ramifications of his idea to their logical conclusion, Loy also has to keep Geschwitz alive in the final scene, which is, of course, a big departure from Berg.
Loy's ultimate aim is to strip out everything he does not deem absolutely necessary so that his and our concentration can fall fully on the sequence of emotional encounters and transactions that form the backbone of the narrative. And on DVD, at any rate, we have ample proof that he succeeded. Much of the production is shot, by film director Robin Lough, in cool but remorseless close up, in ways that sometimes suggest 1960s art-house movies, and the films of Godard, Resnais and Pasolini in particular. There's a sense of naked emotion first relentlessly exposed then explored in formidable detail.
Agneta Eichenholz as Lulu. Photograph: Clive Barda Eyeball to eyeball with Agneta Eichenholz's Lulu we sense the emotional and sexual hunger, the hints of wilful self-assertion and the self-destructive naivety between the enigmatic, almost Audrey Hepburn-ish facade. (There's no suggestion of Lulu as a 'blank screen' here, despite the assertions of Loy's admirers.) We also come face to face with the glints of both desire and cruelty that lurk in the eyes of Michael Volle's Schön, and with the sulky petulance of Will Hartmann's painter. Klaus Florian Vogt's Alwa, looking very like his on-stage father, gazes dreamily into camera, while Jennifer Larmore's Geschwitz nervously focuses on her beloved in tremulous fear of rejection and manipulation.
There are faults here, though, some of them Lough's, some of them Loy's. The amount of close-up footage requires a level of naturalistic acting that not all the cast can supply. Peter Rose, in particular, comes over as fractionally too mannered as the Animal Trainer and doesn't really settle until he mutates into the Athlete an hour or so later. Lough's camera, meanwhile, sometimes seems pointed in the wrong direction. Loy has the Painter slash his throat in full view of the audience: Lough, at this point, dampens down the nastiness of it by overly focussing on Lulu and Schön panicking on the opposite side of the stage.
The interludes are sometimes taken up with slow-motion flashbacks or flash-forwards, which we don't really need. The opening credits, meanwhile, roll in silence over footage of Eichenholz's face as she gazes challengingly and impassively at the viewer. Lough then maintains a superb sense of claustrophobia through the first two acts by running them in sequence and refusing to cut away from stage to the auditorium, though he then wrecks the mood after the disc break by filming Antonio Pappano in the pit at the start of Act Three. Loy, meanwhile, has trouble with the final scene. In addition to his awkward decision to leave Geschwitz alive, Loy also has Alwa slash his throat like the Painter, rather than be killed by the second of Lulu's clients. This time around, Lough films the suicide in the goriest detail imaginable, though the sheer horror of it, added to that awkward exit for Jack and Lulu, adds to the anticlimactic feel of the latter's off-stage murder.
Musically, though, you can't help but admire most of it. Pappano's beautiful conducting strikes a fine balance between the post-Mahlerian tradition of Berg interpretation represented by Böhm, Maazel and Andrew Davis and the clearer, more expressionist approach of Leopold Ludwig, Boulez and Ingo Metzmacher. There's an ease and beauty to Eichenholz's singing that puts her on a level with Teresa Stratas, Marlis Petersen and the late, great Anneliese Rothenberger in the title role. Michael Volle is one of the finest Schöns you will ever hear, ditto Will Hartmann's painter. Gwynne Howell's Schigolch and Jennifer Larmore's Geschwitz, though fine, have been bettered elsewhere – Howell by Kim Borg and Hans Hotter, Larmore by Kerstin Meyer and Brigitte Fassbaender. The sound, in favour of the voices, doesn't help Klaus Florian Vogt, whose steadiness is sometimes undermined by a vibrato in his tone. Philip Langridge, in one of his last extant performances, is wonderfully sleazy as both Prince and Marquis.
As a totality, it's remarkably impressive, if flawed. Yet it also made me uneasy. This is by no means the first operatic production to cause controversy in the theatre, yet offer a more balanced, rounded experience on its DVD. Another recent example is the Stéphane Braunschweig / Simon Rattle “Die Walküre" from Aix-en-Provence released by Bel Air in 2008. It has many points in common with this – a production that received a critical drubbing for excessive theatrical minimalism that nevertheless proved riveting when filmed in intense close up.
In one of the accompanying interviews here, Eichenholz lets slip her concerns that the full effect of Loy's staging can only be experienced at close quarters rather than at a distance – and there is, of course, no closer quarter than Lough's camera work. One is left pondering whether productions are now being planned as much for their DVD potential as for their theatrical validity. And one is left wondering just what the long terms implications might be, if so.

 

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