Schønwandt Brings Out Strengths of Berg’s Operatic Masterpiece

31/10/2011

Berg, Lulu: Soloists, Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris, Michael Schønwandt (conductor). Opéra Bastille, 28.10.2011 (MB)

Lulu – Laura Aikin
Countess Geschwitz – Jennifer Larmore
Dresser, Schoolboy, Groom – Andrea Hill
Painter, Negro – Marlin Miller
Dr Schön, Jack the Ripper – Wolfgang Schöne
Alwa – Kurt Streit
Schigolch – Franz Grundheber
Animal Tamer, Athlete – Scott Wilde
Prince, Manservant, Marquis – Robert Wörle
Theatre Director, Banker – Victor von Halem
Fifteen-year old girl – Julie Mathevet
Girl’s Mother – Marie-Thérèse Keller
Artist – Marianne Crebassa
Journalist – Damien Pass
Professor of Medicine, Professor, Police Officer – Johannes Koegel-Dorfs
Servant – Ugo Rabec

Production

Willy Decker (director)
Wolfgang Gussmann (designs)
Hans Toelstede (lighting)

Lulu in Paris: one immediately thinks of the first performance of the full work, as realised by Friedrich Cerha. What it must have been to be present at the Palais Garnier when an opera hitherto known only through its first two acts (and the Lulu-Suite) finally saw the light of day, conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed by Patrice Chéreau. Bafflingly, Chéreau’s production seems never to have been revived, being supplanted in 1998 by Willy Decker’s staging for the Paris Opéra, now at the Bastille, here revived for the first time.

There is no initial curtain, so one is immediately confronted with Wolfgang Gussmann’s set, in which a stage of sorts is viewed by something akin to an amphitheatre above. Sometimes, there are people watching the events onstage, sometimes not; they are nearly always men. A red stepladder forms the initial circus-like setting for Lulu – remember the Prologue with the Animal Tamer – to be observed and manhandled. Ladders prove important throughout, not least in permitting some degree of movement between the ‘audience’ and ‘stage’: the final scene with Jack the Ripper has several. The focal point for the scene with the Painter is a sofa in the form of red lips, stylishly evoking, like much else, a vague sense of design-led era and also reminding us that this is often as much the blackest of comedies as it is tragedy. (The contrast with Wozzeck is instructive.) Gussmann’s designs – costumes and hairstyles in particular – look strikingly similar to those for Decker’s well-travelled staging of Die tote Stadt, which I saw in Salzburg and Jim Pritchard reviewed in London, as strong a case as is ever likely to be made for a rather overblown, more than a little ridiculous work. But this Lulu of course came first – and the style is certainly appropriate. Serried mannequins in the final scene of the first act are a splendid touch of artificiality as well as an opportunity for an existentially bored Lulu to select her latest performing outfit.

One only has to recall Christof Loy’s dreadful ‘minimalism’ for the Royal Opera – in which no one and nothing were distinguished from anybody and anything else, Berg’s carefully-crafted parallelism coming to naught – to appreciate this lively, colourful setting in which the drama could be understood and experienced in all its bewitching variety. It does not especially matter where the different scenes are set, but there needs to be a sense of difference – which there is here. Loy achieved what one might have thought impossible, to render Lulu boring – with considerable help from a conductor, Antonio Pappano, utterly at sea with Berg’s music – but Decker draws one in, paints a picture but allows one to imagine and to think as well. Mention of the picture reminds us that, unlike at Covent Garden, there is one, into which – a very nice touch this – Lulu blends at the end. Likewise, there is, crucially, a sofa on which Lulu can chillingly remind Alwa of his father’s death. (The absence of any such props, or substitutes, simply made nonsense of the work in Loy’s hands.) And the phalanx of men all drawing their knifes upon Lulu at the end makes still more explicit what has been apparent all along.

Michael Schønwandt led a very good account of the score: perhaps not quite revelatory – we can listen to Boulez for that – but unfailing alert to the longer line as well as to the ever-shifting balances between the myriad orchestral voices. If I regretted somewhat the lack of film for the palindrome turning-point – why is it that directors, often so eager to use film in quite unnecessary places, seem reluctant to do so where it is actually stipulated? – the black curtain had the beneficial consequence of allowing one only to listen. It is testament to Schønwandt’s formal control that Berg’s design was searingly audible, with all the dramatic implications that follow. Another interesting point made was the closeness of the music for Lulu’s appearance in that act, before the scene with Alwa, to that of Gurrelieder, for which Berg of course provided the vocal score and an introductory thematic guide. Schønwandt and the excellent orchestra conjured up a golden yet darkly Teutonic sound quite in keeping with such references. Indeed, the orchestra was on splendid form throughout, strings silken and woodwind quite delectable.

Laura Aikin’s performance in the title role was in many respects excellent. Except for a couple of lines in the Paris scene, in which I could hear nothing at all, as if she were miming, she had the necessary stamina. Her German, both sung and especially spoken, was a little too American-accented, however, and if I had problems with it, I am sure a native speaker would have done far more so. There was also perhaps a problem with the presentation of a relatively mature Lulu: the eternal childlike aspect of the character was often absent, whilst this alternative seemed more an accident than a deliberate choice. (I suspect that it could be made to work, but it would require more appropriate direction.) In the first scene of the second act, Lulu seemed a little too comfortable as Hausfrau of the Schön residence. Wolfgang Schöne’s Dr Schön – what’s in a name? – was better acted than sung: the vocal performance had its moments, but dryness of tone inevitably led one to invidious comparisons with earlier performers such as Fischer-Dieskau. Kurt Streit was an impressive Alwa, thoughtful yet also honeyed of tone, the composer’s self-portrayal tugging the heartstrings as it should. Jennifer Larmore seems to have made the role of Geschwitz her own for the moment: hers once again was a moving portrayal, melding words and music together with beauty and meaning. As for Franz Grundheber’s superlative rasping and grasping Schigolch, I can only repeat what I said about his performance of the role in Salzburg last year: it was in the Norman Bailey class.  Scott Wilde made a strong impression, both virile and humorous, as Animal Tamer and Athlete.  Marlin Miller offered a finely observed Painter, not least in terms of uncommonly sweet-toned vocalism. What a delight it was also to welcome back the veteran Victor von Halem as Theatre Director and Banker, quite in his element as both.

Whatever misgivings I may have voiced about certain aspects of this performance, the ultimate truth lay in the work emerging once again as a towering masterpiece. Contrast that with Loy and Pappano at Covent Garden, who contrived to make Lulu neither look nor sound recognisable, or even comprehensible, let alone great. Had that been the only Lulu of one’s life, one would most likely have wondered what all the fuss was about.  Lulu in Paris, by contrast, continued to enchant, to disturb, and to make one think.

Mark Berry

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