Lulu [Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after Frank Wedekind; English translation by Richard Stokes; Act 3 completed by Friedrich Cerha]

Lulu – Lisa Saffer
Countess Geschwitz – Susan Parry
Dresser/Schoolboy/Waiter – Anna Burford
Professor of Medicine/Theatre Manager/Banker/First Client – Graeme Danby
Painter/Second Client – Richard Coxon
Doctor Schön/Jack the Ripper – Robert Hayward
Alwa – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Schigolch – Gwynne Howell
Animal Tamer/Acrobat – Robert Poulton
Manservant/Marquis/African Prince – Alan Oke
Police Commissioner – Roger Begley
Fifteen-year-old Girl – Claire Mitcher
Servant – Paul Napier-Burrows
Mother – Jane Powell
Designer – Moira Harris
Journalist – Toby Stafford-Allen

English National Opera Orchestra
Paul Daniel

Director – Richard Jones
Associate director – Annilese Miskimmon
Set designer – Paul Steinberg
Costume designer – Buki Shiff
Lighting designer – Pat Collins
Lighting revived by – Kevin Sleep
Movement director – Linda Dobell
Fight director – Alison de Burgh

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 18 April, 2005
Venue: Coliseum, London

This was the first night of the revival of an acclaimed production of Berg’s second and last opera, in its full three-act incarnation (Act Three’s vocal score was completed by Berg by the time of his death in 1935 and the majority of the act’s orchestration undertaken, decades later, by Friedrich Cerha) first seen at English National Opera in 2002, with some of the cast reprising their roles from that initial run.

Also returning were conductor Paul Daniel, in his last production as ENO’s Music Director, and director Richard Jones.

Jones and his design team elected to stage the opera in what would appear to be a contemporary setting, though this did not radically affect the dramaturgy – especially as there was emphasis on the ‘play within a play’ notion. Indeed this staging commenced with the Animal Tamer introducing the characters and ‘inviting’ them to participate in what was clearly designated an ‘adult entertainment’ show.

There was a deal of ‘entertainment’ throughout, with some of the comings, goings and cavorting of Lulu’s admirers providing food for laughter, some of which was probably not wholly intended by the composer whose serially-inclined score does not invite much merriment.

In fact, one potential drawback of this production is that the ‘darker’ elements were rather understated. Frank Wedekind’s world – the author of “Earth Spirit” and “Pandora’s Box” (on which Berg based his own libretto) – as reflected through Berg’s reworking, is a nasty, cynical one, with immorality and money-grabbing – not to mention people-abuse – being seen as par for the course. We need to feel more uncomfortable than Jones allows us to in his interpretation.

One might say something similar about the musical aspect. This was what might be described as a ‘soft-grained’ approach, though there was some telling instrumental playing – especially from the saxophones and piano (the players not named in the programme) – and fine blend and ensemble. But there was, too often, a lack of sheer force, with accents underplayed. In places this is a brutal score, and this ferocity was notable for its absence.

Neither was the bittersweet ‘Viennese’ quality, which rears its nostalgic head from time to time, really given its due and, for all the finesse of the ENO Orchestra’s playing, a fair amount of the detail which is to be found in this remarkable score, did not fully register.

The audience was asked for its indulgence on behalf of two of the principals – Lulu herself and Countess Geschwitz. As the latter, Susan Parry was in no need of being apologised for. Hers was a strongly felt and sympathetic portrayal. Berg himself admitted that he had not, initially at any rate, found depicting this character – a lesbian admirer of Lulu – especially easy, but Susan Parry was a most convincing exponent of it, her final words conveying both despair and resignation.

In view of the fact that it was announced that Lisa Saffer had been suffering from throat problems, it is perhaps unfair to pass final judgement on the basis of this particular performance.

She suggests a feisty, self-contained woman, well aware of her effect on those who admire her, and ‘playing up’ to this for all it is worth. But one didn’t really sense – to any great extent – that this was someone who excites obsession in others; or the reasons for it. She was, by turn, flirty and flighty, but the profundities of the character, her allure, and the aura of impending disaster were not conveyed. Saffer has the range for the part – which is an uncommonly wide one – though the effortful projection at the top of the register may have been due to her vocal condition.

She did suggest a touching vulnerability at times – most affectingly in the final scene in her fatal encounter with Jack the Ripper – and it would be interesting to hear her when she is at her best. It was perhaps because of Saffer’s vocal fragility that Lulu’s death-scream – prescribed in the score (at bar 1294 in Act Three) – was regrettably omitted.

Anna Burford was splendid in her multiple roles – particularly as the rampant schoolboy – and she was one of the few in the cast whose words were conveyed without apparent difficulty.

The male principals were strongly cast. Robert Hayward had gravitas and a streak of nobility about him, even as the maniac Jack, whose music, disturbingly, recalls that of Dr Schön, Lulu’s husband earlier on in the drama.

As his son Alwa, a composer, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts gave a good account of this difficult role. If one ideally wants something like a Heldentenor in the part, Lloyd-Roberts was nevertheless convincing in his own terms and his decline into a man all but oblivious of anything except the object of his craving – Lulu – was compelling.

The designation that Alwa’s killer in the harrowing final scene should be a ‘Negro’ was not depicted, but Richard Coxon deployed his strong tenor to good effect here and in earlier scenes as the Painter.

Gwynne Howell was a solid, mysterious Schigolch (an insidious old man) and was also a model at projecting the text.

A translation was credited to Richard Stokes, but most of it was inaudible, with the main exceptions being noted above. What was clearly heard were “bugger” and the F-word, which do not appear in the German libretto that I have to hand. Neither is an act of fellatio, performed by Lulu on Dr Schön at the end of Act One in this production, prescribed in the original stage directions.

This is an echt-Deutsch opera, which cries out for the bite of the German language, and given this most of this cast’s inability to convey an English equivalent – making the ensembles in particular something of a trial of comprehension – one rather regretted that the sound of the original was not there to be savoured.

One must report the inattention of some of the audience during the orchestral interludes. These are crucial to Berg’s structure and are not – or should not – be cues for programme rustling, talking and other such activities. Putting the lights up at these points doesn’t help the situation.

Nevertheless, whatever weaknesses there may have been, one felt the overall commitment of the cast, and perhaps when Saffer is at her best, the production may gel a little more, even if it is unlikely, finally, to become as attractive as the femme fatale Lulu herself.

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