Lulu – Opera in three acts [completed by Friedrich Cerha; English translation by Richard Stokes]

Lulu – Lisa Saffer
Countess Geschwitz – Susan Parry
Dr. Schön / Jack the Ripper – Robert Hayward
Alwa – John Graham-Hall
Schigolch – Gwynne Howell
Painter / Second Client – Richard Coxon
Animal Tamer / Acrobat – Robert Poulton
Dresser / Schoolboy / Waiter – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Professor of Medicine / Theatre Manager / Banker / First Client – Graeme Danby
African Prince / Manservant / Marquis – Nigel Robson

Director – Richard Jones
Set Designer – Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer – Buki Schiff
Lighting designer – Pat Collins

Orchestra of English National Opera conducted by Paul Daniel

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 May, 2002
Venue: Coliseum, London

Despite having existed as a complete, three-act entity for almost a quarter of a century, Lulu has received relatively few stagings in the UK; English National Opera’s new production is the first in London since the Royal Opera House revival in 1984. Not yet an opera whose familiarity is likely to breed contempt – and even if it were, the continually changing perception of its ultimate message, not to mention that of its central protagonist, provides a means of constant renewal.

Richard Jones gained a fair measure of infamy for his unashamedly deconstructive take on Wagner’s 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 Jones’s 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 opera’s 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, Berg’s (if not Wedekind’s) drama is one in which catharsis is central to the experience.

In all other respects, Jones’s 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 Steinberg’s eye-catching sets – generalised 1950s in appearance – and Buki Schiff’s generally apposite costumes – the rather limited ’Mrs Pankhurst’ outfit of Countess Geschwitz an unfortunate exception. Richard Stokes’s literal but engaging translation, not shirking expletives, comes across clearly and entertainingly.

Musically, ENO has assembled a strong cast. After her scintillating appearance in Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten (Soldiers) five years ago, Lisa Saffer’s 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-Hall’s 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 Berg’s 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 Poulton’s roguish Animal Tamer and wide-boy Acrobat just keep to the right side of caricature.

Paul Daniel’s conducting can be rated another triumph of his ENO tenure. The lucidity with which he conveys Berg’s 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 Cerha’s realisation. Admittedly the final scene needs greater dramatic pathos, notably in the denouement, to drive home the music’s 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

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