Richard Jones gained a fair measure of infamy for his unashamedly deconstructive take on Wagners Ring cycle. Given its inherently deconstructed ethos, Lulu cannot be scaled down to the same degree, hence the preference for the varied emphasis on, rather than wholesale revision of, dramatic detail reinforcing as opposed to undermining of Joness approach. The one radical reassessment concerns the Prologue, in which the Wedekind-Berg animal menagerie becomes a human peep-show; the animal tamer, paradoxically, is thus a master of ceremonies of the animalistic kind.
While this works well at the beginning of Act One, setting the tone for the underlying tawdriness of the operas relationships, it forces Jones to overhaul the mise-en-scene at the close of Act Three turning the murder of Lulu into the climax of a paid show, whose members are merely fulfilling a contract. This is a neat way of placing the decayed decadence into which Lulu and Lulu herself declines at a remove from reality, but it drains any vestige of intrinsic human meaning from the stage-action. The result is an ending without catharsis and, pace other commentators, Bergs (if not Wedekinds) drama is one in which catharsis is central to the experience.
In all other respects, Joness presentation is of the in-between kind underscoring the action on stage without undermining the deeper musical response; and playing-up the farcical, often surreal, aspects without caricaturing them. He is aided in this by Paul Steinbergs eye-catching sets generalised 1950s in appearance and Buki Schiffs generally apposite costumes the rather limited Mrs Pankhurst outfit of Countess Geschwitz an unfortunate exception. Richard Stokess literal but engaging translation, not shirking expletives, comes across clearly and entertainingly.
Musically, ENO has assembled a strong cast. After her scintillating appearance in Zimmermanns Die Soldaten (Soldiers) five years ago, Lisa Saffers Lulu is all that one hoped for. Starlet muse trophy-wife femme fatale: all aspects of this complex and ever-changing personality are conveyed by her body language and the naturalness of her appearance whether as society hostess or prostitute with the coloratura aspects of the vocal-writing surmounted with ease. Saffer can easily join Teresa Stratas and, more recently, Christine Schäfer as the finest exponents of this demanding role.
John Graham-Halls Alwa initially seems a trifle lacklustre, but gains conviction during Act Two and makes an eloquent and sympathetic impression as the syphilis-infected wreck of the final scene. Robert Hayward is not the most accurate Dr. Schön, but his presence has all the sham authority and increasing paranoia required, while his return as Jack the Ripper has a properly brutish nastiness. Susan Parry is a warmly human Geschwitz subtly belying the exotic feel of Bergs music and Gwynne Howell casts off his customary integrity to make Schigolch oddly impressive in his uncouthness. Richard Coxon disappoints as a crude, insensitive painter, though his inability to sustain the high-lying vocal writing is less of a problem in his cameo as the Second Client. Rebecca de Pont Davies is secure and dependable in her three roles, while Robert Poultons roguish Animal Tamer and wide-boy Acrobat just keep to the right side of caricature.
Paul Daniels conducting can be rated another triumph of his ENO tenure. The lucidity with which he conveys Bergs often densely translucent orchestral writing is matched by the sensuousness he brings to the musical characterisation. Pacing, unexceptionally good in Act One, and alive to the many changes of expressive emphasis in Act Two, is at its best in the complex sequence of ensembles and dialogues in Act Three, Scene One still controversial in Friedrich Cerhas realisation. Admittedly the final scene needs greater dramatic pathos, notably in the denouement, to drive home the musics intensely end of an era quality but the preparation has clearly been done and the omens for this production as it continues its run are overwhelmingly positive.
- Further performances May 10, 16, 23, 28 & 30 at 7.00p.m; May 18 & 25 at 5.30. Performance of 23 May conducted by Anthony Legge
- Box Office: 020 7632 8300 www.eno.org