You’re most likely to emerge from Lulu humming the production, in which William Kentridge’s video work plays a vital role rather than being atmospheric adjuncts. The projections capture the vortex of ceaseless activity that Alban Berg’s and Frank Wedekind’s archetypal woman creates around her.
Kentridge, the South African artist and film-maker, has taken the imagery of 1930s’ German Expressionist woodcuts – of faces, bodies and sexual detail created from stark shadows and black outlines – animated them into a jerky cartoon-collage and applied them to the two plays by Wedekind (once considered so scandalous and subversive that they were banned) that Berg used for his opera. Not only does Kentridge’s art mirror the narrative brilliantly, it and the staging also have as little depth as possible, which fits the squalid parade of two-dimensional roles perfectly.
In an opera of simplistic plot – basically the rise and fall of Lulu – and characterisation filtered through a serial score of immense complexity, the staging’s strong visual component helps enormously in drawing the whole concept together, while the crude sexualisation of the drawings of Lulu are there to back up her femme fatale mystique rather than to titillate.
If the neutral life-force is evil, then Lulu, in her fatal effect on people, is very wicked. Her despair lies in her being unable to control the chaos she emanates, a chaos that destroys those who try to harness it to their own ends and those whose moral scruples are too feeble to withstand it.
This is something that Mark Wigglesworth understands well, and the sounds and levels of involvement he gets from the ENO Orchestra are highly responsive, especially in the anguished, late-romanticism of the Interludes that comment on the opera like a Chorus – the crucial one to the Act Two film sequence of Lulu’s arrest (she’s just shot her third husband and long-term nemesis/lover Dr Schön), imprisonment, sickness and escape is a thrilling meeting of musical and visual minds.
Initially I fretted over Brenda Rae’s lack of body and volume in her lower voice – where a lot of Lulu’s music lies – but her high voice projected a blend of brightness, fragility and, as required, power, and she didn’t sound at all fazed by Berg’s angular vocal writing. It’s a tall order for any singer to generate a role, which, as a blank canvas there to accommodate any number of dark fantasies, is absent as a personality – you admire, desire or observe Lulu rather than identify with her, and Rae conveyed this with impressive verismo.
The men in her life reacted to her well. David Soar’s attention-grabbing Animal Tamer, who introduces the whole sorry circus, and Athlete were both strong caricatures, trenchantly sung and very sleazy. Michael Colvin’s Painter (Lulu’s second husband/victim) was poignant and hopelessly passionate as his voice squeezed ever more expression out of the high-lying writing. Nicky Spence was in full tenor voice as Dr Schön’s son Alwa (a composer sometimes presented as Berg, though not here). Willard White oozed unpleasantness as Schigolch, Lulu’s father, clearly alive to her charms. James Morris, a distinguished former Wotan, lacked the authority that should make him the only man who gets near to Lulu, and as Jack the Ripper, his menace was limited in the otherwise very creepy final Act. Sarah Connolly was superb as the pathetic, lovelorn Countess Geschwitz.
There are several sharply-played smaller roles, notably from Clare Presland, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Graeme Danby and Rebecca de Pont Davies. The addition of two non-singing roles – a dancer-pianist as Lulu’s doppelganger (Joanna Dudley) and a Nosferatu-like butler (Andrea Fabi) – are skillfully done but add an unnecessary theatricality.
With its virtuoso values, this Lulu has already gone down a storm in Amsterdam and New York, and, poignantly, shows off ENO and Mark Wigglesworth at their best. Its combination of media and the panache with which they are delivered is, in a long evening, exhausting, but the production as a whole gets right to the centre of this heartless masterpiece.