Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu with Angel Blue [The Young Vic]

Olga Neuwirth
American Lulu – Opera in three acts [“A new interpretation of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu”; co-commissioned by The Opera Group and Komische Oper Berlin: London premiere; sung in English, with English supertitles]

“Music of Acts I and II adapted and reorchestrated by Olga Neuwirth
Text of Acts I and II adapted by Olga Neuwirth and Helga Utz using translations into English by Richard Stokes and Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon
Music and text for Act III by Olga Neuwirth translated into English by Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon”

Lulu – Angel Blue
Clarence – Robert Winslade Anderson
Dr Bloom – Donald Maxwell
Jimmy – Jonathan Stoughton
Eleanor – Jacqui Dankworth
Photographer / Young Man – Paul Curievici
Athlete – Simon Wilding
Professor / Banker / Police Commissioner – Paul Reeves

London Sinfonietta
Gerry Cornelius

John Fulljames – Director
Magda Willi – Designer
Guy Hoare – Lighting
Finn Ross – Video
Carolyn Downing – Sound
Emma Woodvine – Dialect Coach

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 14 September, 2013
Venue: The Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1

Angel Blue as Lulu (American Lulu, The Young Vic). Photograph: Simon Annand“What is this shit?”. Thus did critic Greil Marcus open his Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait double album on its initial release in 1970. Olga Neuwirth’s latest music-theatre experience, which left at least one audience member similarly perplexed on the press night of its London run, seems to want to explore the underside of that Sixties-ish era: the souring of an American dream of counter-cultural liberation and racial equality … and much else besides.

The Austrian provocateur (born 1968) is a highly regarded composer for the concert hall but among her more worrying traits is a fondness for multi-media re-workings of pieces in other forms, q.v. David Lynch’s Lost Highway as staged by English National Opera in 2008 (also at the Young Vic). Most felt that the gamble paid off, perhaps because the film is a cult classic rather than a self-evident masterpiece and the performing space seemed to work so well as a setting for what Richard Whitehouse referred to as “left field” music-theatre.

Why Lulu though? Neuwirth’s assault on Berg’s unfinished magnum opus recalls similarly reductive attempts to turn Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess into a musical. Victimless crimes? Not quite, given that neither work is sufficiently well-entrenched in the repertoire to boast a definitive text or a standard running order. (In the case of the Berg, it may be that the shorter, ‘modular’ Act Three option recently posited by Eberhard Kloke will eventually supplant the performing edition by Friedrich Cerha unveiled in 1979.)

The ‘let’s re-make an icon’ treatment feels inappropriate in such circumstances. Neuwirth herself appears to miss this point when, in a piece printed in the programme, she cites the precedent of Carmen Jones, the musical and film (orchestrated for Broadway by Robert Russell Bennett with lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II) which set Bizet’s opera in the ‘steamy’ American Deep South.

Paul Curievici as Photographer & Donald Maxwell as Dr Bloom (American Lulu, The Young Vic). Photograph: Simon Annand But then it sometimes seems as if she is determined to reinsert all the clichés that Berg avoided in his Lulu – a timeless meditation on female objectification and the shared hypocrisy of the societies that sanction it. In a notably foolish written contribution from director John Fulljames it is implied that this model is somehow invalid because it has been devised by men. The same thought process can of course be employed to junk most of Western culture – and Western art music in particular.

What we have instead is an unsatisfying jumble, Neuwirth adding a different kind of fight for control by relocating us to the era of the American civil rights movement. With an African American protagonist, the string-light 26-piece ensemble, permanently seen behind a beaded curtain, can take its cue from Berg’s (more cautious) deployment of jazz and blues. There is also substantial use of a ghostly cinema organ effect.

Angel Blue as Lulu (American Lulu, The Young Vic). Photograph: Simon AnnandIt is Neuwirth’s third Act which departs most radically from Berg’s semi-realised picture of a femme fatale on the slide. Here, narcissistic prostitute Lulu has gone to jail and re-emerged “free at last” as a higher class of call girl. She acquires an Angela Davis wig towards the end but no values to go with it. Musically, the score is now Neuwirth’s own although the denouement takes in non-credited chunks of iconic Berg. In an event, in which we are all meant to feel implicated, the fatally wounded Lulu staggers out into the auditorium, the victim of her past. It might have been intriguing to see her telling us her life story as a corpse, in the manner of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, but there is nothing witty about a super-titled English-language production in which the African-American experience is rendered with the dignity of Quentin Tarantino and – yes – we are expected to laugh at the swearing.

Splicing the resonant texts of Martin Luther King and June Jordan into the melee is ill-advised on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin. Could it be that we are meant to be alienated from the events that we see? Might those familiar with Berg’s own source material, the Lulu plays by Frank Wedekind, understand something the rest of us don’t? Or is the intended audience one unaware of any kind of context or precedent?

Fulljames does his best with the no doubt limited resources available – Finn Ross’s video images are skilfully projected onto the aforementioned curtain in lieu of scenery and the comings and goings have a certain fluidity – but it is a dispiriting evening. A brief cartoon rape sequence alluding to the means whereby Lulu’s lesbian lover springs her from the penitentiary won’t please all punters.

Angel Blue’s Lulu, authentically Californian and attractive vocally if perhaps excessively soft-grained, is inescapably two-dimensional. Hideously costumed at times – a dress adorned with bananas provides the excuse for some crude stage business – she is played with a kind of indifferent facelessness which may be the only way for a performer to deal with intractable material in which there is no certain motivation for anything. The portrayal seems to contradict any conceivably feminist reading of the character and it is impossible to understand the hold she must be presumed to have over her admirers. Her Musetta in ENO’s most recent revival of Jonathan Miller’s production of La bohème was reportedly more “feral”.

The heavily amplified Jacqui Dankworth’s Eleanor, the Countess Geschwitz character who in the original opera carries the emotional burden of Jack the Ripper’s stabbing of Lulu, gets by through sticking close to her cabaret persona and her microphone. Donald Maxwell, luxury casting as an elderly Dr Bloom (the erstwhile Dr Schön), is arguably over the top yet manages to create a real impression. Everyone else simply overacts, trying too hard, and almost all the accents are rudimentary. Paul Reeves in three roles looks distractingly like Rolf Harris.

On the plus side Gerry Cornelius conducts with indisputable commitment and authority, and the London Sinfonietta, unfazed by the peculiar demands of the honking, brazen instrumental textures, performs as brilliantly as ever.

“What is this shit?” may be a little harsh but on this occasion the post-modern empress has no clothes. Not since Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice have I witnessed such aesthetic confusion. And this time the co-producers include The Opera Group, Young Vic, Scottish Opera and the Bregenz Festival in association with the London Sinfonietta. Far from revealing a new and empowered proto-feminist Lulu making her own way, the message appears to be completely nihilistic. If there is a message…

Not everyone admired Christof Loy’s minimalist ROH production of Berg’s opera in 2009 but its determination to strip away the inessentials is reversed here. At least Neuwirth’s parasitic confection is over in one hour and 40 minutes. It plays without an interval.

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