Breth and Barenboim’s Lulu a Travesty of Berg’s Opera

GermanyGermany  Berg, Lulu: Soloists, Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Schiller Theater, Berlin, 9.4.2012 (MB)

Lulu: Mojca Erdmann
Countess Geschwitz: Deborah Polaski
Dresser, Gymnast: Anna Lapkovskaja
Painter, Negro: Stephan Rügamer
Dr Schön, Jack the Ripper: Michael Volle
Alwa: Thomas Piffka
Athlete: Georg Nigl
Schigolch: Jürgen Linn
Prince, Manservant: Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke
Theatre Manager: Johann Werner Prein
Doctor of Medicine, Professor:  Wolfgang Hübsch
Lulu’s Doppelgängerin: Blanka Modrá, Liane Oßwald

Andrea Breth (director)
Erich Wonder (set designs)
Moidele Bickel (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Philipp Haupt (video)
David Robert Coleman (‘adaptation’ of the London Scene)
Jens Schroth (dramatic advisor)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

I am genuinely at a loss to know where to start with this performance of Lulu, but perhaps a little chronological background would be as good a place as any. Having admired Andrea Breth’s Salzburg production of Eugene Onegin, which he conducted, Daniel Barenboim invited her to direct Wozzeck and Lulu in Berlin. Wozzeck was much admired at last year’s Festtage; I thought highly of it, albeit with a few more reservations than many seem to have felt. It was certainly, however, a good enough production to have me look forward to Berg’s second opera – except that it was not really Berg’s second opera at all.  Instead, Breth and Barenboim served up a bowdlerised version, a ‘Berliner Fassung’ for which I cannot imagine anyone had called, and which certainly did not seem to satisfy anyone in the theatre. The Prologue disappears completely, replaced by a horizontal actor’s drawn out reading from Kierkegaard and Lulu’s third-act scream, as does the Paris Scene from the Third Act. This is not a reversion to the old two-act version, though, even if one discounts the bizarre excision of the Prologue, in which the terms of the drama are set up, the whole world a stage or a circus. For the final scene, set in London, has been rewritten, adapted – call it what you will – by one David Robert Coleman, of whom I freely admit that I had never heard before. On the basis of this encounter, I sincerely hope that reunion should be indefinitely postponed. One might be able to take the use of a radio – presumably a recording, though it may just have been a strange acoustic trick – during the first act, but Coleman’s sketchy orchestration sounded more akin to an undergraduate’s first attempt to look through Berg’s manuscripts than a finished ‘version’, let alone a competitor to Friedrich Cerha’s standard completion.

Why was the latter not used? Presumably permission was refused, not unreasonably, on account of the decision to make cuts. Whose decision was this? It sounded as much a mess as what we saw onstage, of which more anon, despite fine musical performances, of which more anon. Berg’s harmonisation of the hurdy-gurdy Lautenlied is tossed aside in favour of a manifestly inferior version by Wedekind. This is not, of course, simply a matter of an inferior harmonisation, nor indeed of having missed the tune’s first appearance in the excised Paris Scene; dodecaphonic writing and method are completely undermined. This is musical violence from which I am frankly astonished that Barenboim did not recoil. Likewise when it comes to the violence done to Berg’s symmetries, dramatic and musical, it is unconscionable; this is not some Italianate number-opera. It is mystifying that one of the truly great musicians of our time, someone who has collaborated closely with Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chéreau, the team that brought us the first ever staging of the ‘complete’ Lulu, and one who has so excelled in the music of the Second Viennese School, should have acquiesced – if indeed, that is what happened. It was, apparently, at Barenboim’s invitation that Coleman put together his ‘version’, steel drums and all – yes, really! an intimation of an early jukebox, we are told – but was the original decision to travesty Berg’s opera made by Breth? Let us assume so, for it is difficult to imagine why someone conducting Lulu for the first time would wish not really to conduct Lulu at all.

Lulu; photo credit: Bernd Uhlig

Insofar as one can establish responsibility from Breth’s production, it seems likely that the idea was hers. She certainly seems to have no interest in Berg’s structures, substituting for them a tedious play of actors and mimed actions. The setting appears to be a cross between a production of a Beckett parody and a 1980s pop video, a grim warehouse with a crashed car and a great deal of scaffolding. (The latter actually provides a degree of relief; I found myself able to imagine in its structures some Bauhaus-like counterpoint to the constructivism, if not the Romanticism, of Berg’s score.) A great deal goes on, but relatively little seems to have anything to do with the opera itself, nor indeed with the ‘characters’ who sing in this production. Instead of a film of Lulu’s trial we simply gaze upon a couple of filmed eyes, maybe Lulu’s, maybe not, whilst someone tips a woman out of a wheelbarrow, puts her back in again, and wheels her off.  Why are directors, often so besotted with film, so reluctant to respect this necessary or at least advisable visual counterpoint to Berg’s palindrome? Sub-Beckett atmosphere is of questionable relevance to Berg, but I could discern no attempt even to make it fit. There is, of course, no change of scenery, despite the clear dramatic necessity to shift from one milieu to another. At the end, there is a minor conflagration, permitting more colour than has otherwise been permitted all evening. Just as with Christof Loy’s dreadful, indeed well-nigh unbearable, ‘minimalist’ production for Covent Garden, I cannot imagine that anyone not already well versed in the opera would have the faintest idea what was going on, or who anybody might be, let alone why one might care. If the idea were to excise supposed misogyny and perhaps other uncomfortably drawn characters – why, incidentally or perhaps not incidentally, is it so difficult to distinguish between attitudes voiced by characters and those voiced by creators? – then all that was achieved was to neuter, indeed almost to obliterate, the drama.

The truly odd thing about this whole fiasco is that Barenboim conducted what remained of Berg’s score superbly, so much so that one could almost, especially if one knew the score, fill in the gaps. Despite the ruptures, there was a true understanding of both dramatic and musical flow and the generative nature of Berg’s serial writing. Allied to a Staatskapelle Berlin on fine form, its dark, ‘old German’ sound a true joy to hear in this repertoire, one had a frustrating sense of what might have been. Much of the singing impressed too. Mojca Erdmann occasionally struggled, her voice running out of steam at one point until she elected to resume her cruelly high line an octave lower, but for the most part she sang as well as she acted: a credible doll-like approach that permitted all manner of coloratura parallels to be drawn. Michael Volle sang as well as one might have expected, in a role he seems well on the way to be making his own. If occasionally a little wobblier than one often hears in this part, Deborah Polaski’s Geschwitz was a forthright performance. If she did not tug on the heartstrings as one might hope, that was surely more a matter of the production and its cuts than anything else. Thomas Piffka sometimes sounded forced as Alwa, his lines consequently lacking shape, but elsewhere sang well enough. Stephan Rügamer was compelled to perform a very odd caricatured Negro dance, surely more offensive than anything alleged to be found in the opera itself, but nevertheless emerged with credit, as did Georg Nigl’s Athlete, who also had to perform a great deal of shadow-boxing in the background. Jürgen Linn’s Schigolch made surprisingly little impression, but again that may have been at least as much a matter of the production as anything else. The whole lasted about three hours, including one interval.

Again: why, why, why?

Mark Berry