Welsh National Opera at Milton Keynes – Berg’s Lulu [Marie Arnet; directed by David Pountney, conducted by Lothar Koenigs]

Lulu – Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after the plays Erdgeist and Die Büsche der Pandora by Frank Wedekind [performed with Act III realised by Eberhard Kloke; sung in German with English surtitles]

Animal Trainer / Schigolch – Richard Angas
Alwa – Peter Hoare
Dr Schön / Jack the Ripper – Ashley Holland
Lulu – Marie Arnet
Artist / Negro – Mark Le Brocq
Professor of Medicine – Michael Clifton-Thompson
Prince / Manservant / Marquis – Alan Oke
Wardrobe Mistress / Groom / Schoolboy – Patricia Orr
Theatre Manager / Banker – Nicholas Folwell
Countess Geschwitz – Natascha Petrinsky
Acrobat – Julian Close
Journalist – Alastair Moore
Servant – Julian Boyce
Designer – Louise Ratcliffe
Mother – Jessica Handley Greaves
Fifteen-Year-Old Girl – Anitra Blaxhall
Police Commissioner – Simon Crosby Buttle
Clown – Jasey Hall
Stagehand – George Newton-Fitzgerald

WNO Orchestra
Lothar Koenigs

David Pountney – Director
Johan Engels – Set Designer
Marie-Jeanne Lecca – Costume Designer
Mark Jonathan – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 26 March, 2013
Venue: Milton Keynes Theatre, Buckinghamshire, England

WNO Lulu - Marie Arnet (Lulu) and Ashley Holland (Dr Schon). Photo: Clive BardaNo amount of reported enthusiasm can possibly do justice to the impact of Welsh National Opera’s staging of Alban Berg’s operatic masterpiece when directly experienced. This Lulu is a monumentally fine production. The National Theatre of Prague, the co-producers, must be preening itself.

WNO was the first UK company to stage Lulu – as recently as 1971, thirty-four years after its posthumous incomplete premiere (Berg had died in 1935 leaving Lulu unfinished) and thus prior to Friedrich Cerha’s completion. For this new incarnation David Pountney has paired it with Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen under the title “Free Spirits”. It’s a flag of convenience that might appear ironic when Lulu runs into Jack the Ripper and all freedom is eviscerated out of her but, as the production consistently makes clear, Berg’s heroine is a hedonist who exults in her liberation from moral constraints. She is the rebellious bird that no-one can tame. (Pountney may have missed a trick by topping up his Spring triptych with Madama Butterfly rather than the ne plus ultra of free spirits, Carmen, but as only three years have passed since WNO last toured with it the absence of Bizet’s opera is perhaps understandable.)

WNO Lulu - Marie Arnet (Lulu) and Peter Hoare (Alwa). Photo: Clive BardaLulu’s fate is a wheel that turns first in her favour then inexorably in the other direction. The males in her life woo, use and abuse Lulu, a high percentage of them dropping dead in the process. They build her up as an object of their lust, but it’s also men’s braggadocio in the form of a merchant banker’s swaggering self-interest that precipitates her downfall.

The members of the WNO Orchestra played like angels (or demons, perhaps) for music director Lothar Koenigs. He communicated the Second-Viennese whirls and swirls of Berg’s massive score with uncontainable zest, and to exhilarating effect. From a technical standpoint Lulu is one of the most challenging of operas, yet no-one here appeared daunted by its difficulties – a mastery that allowed us to see beyond the music’s apparent difficulty and luxuriate in its sensual beauty. The Swedish soprano Marie Arnet was astonishing as Lulu (or Mignon, or Nelly, or Eva, as she is variously known, or perhaps Lulu is just Wedekind’s take on the eternal feminine). Beautiful, commanding, accomplished and wholly alive, this was no blank canvas on which searching souls might doodle their fantasies but a woman whose erotic allure was founded on her inner strength and profound sense of self. A feminist Lulu, then, and also a great one.

WNO Lulu - Richard Angas (Animal Tamer). Photo: Clive BardaFurther links to The Cunning Little Vixen rear their heads through the use of, well, heads: animal masks that are worn expressionistically to colour in each suitor’s personality. Some are predators – a lion and a bear – while the Prince (the excellent Alan Oke) is a crocodile. Pountney’s organised world of chaos accommodates other literary parallels too, not least the madness of Lewis Carroll with the timid Alwa (Peter Hoare, as vivid as one has come to expect) kitted out as a flustered White Rabbit whose headgear morphs into myxomatosis. Wagner’s Wanderer also puts in an appearance when the Animal Tamer (Richard Angas, who doubles as a sinister Schigolch) trudges on sporting a breastplate, cloak, spear and eye-patch.

Pountney directs his fine cast with an attention to detail that ensures spectators will overlook something worth seeing. Look to the left and you’ll miss a significant gesture on the right. Focus on the principals and a moment of magic among the minor characters will have come and gone. It’s all as brilliantly busy as the opera itself. The designer, Johan Engels, houses the action inside an imposing gilded set that manages to suggest a lion-tamer’s cage, a circus ring, Frankenstein’s laboratory and an erotic dance club. In Act Two Engels adds a giant bed made of female body parts, into which both the Countess (Natascha Petrinsky) and the Schoolboy (Patricia Orr) dive with lustful gusto.

For the past three decades the unfinished third Act of Lulu has usually been given in Cerha’s completion, first staged in Paris in 1979 conducted by Pierre Boulez, but Pountney and Koenigs have turned to a recent, more concise edition by Eberhard Kloke that drags the opera down to hell at greater speed and to more devastating effect. At the end of a long evening this heightened sense of momentum (achieved largely through the excision of some dramatically inert money-based material) is as welcome as it is persuasive in honouring the essence of Berg’s thoughts and fragments.

Welsh National Opera’s Lulu concludes its tour at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth on 2 April. If you can get to it, do, for it is an achievement of the highest order.

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