Luminous Orchestral Playing in WNO’s Striking Lulu

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berg, Lulu: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Lothar Koenigs (conductor), (premiere), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 8.2.2013 (GPu)


Animal Tamer/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 Clufton-Thompson
Prince/Manservant/Marquis – Alan Oke
Wardrobe Mistress/Groom/Schoolboy – Patricia Orr
Theatre Manager/Banker – Nicolas Folwell
Countess Geschwitz – Natascha Petrinsky
Acrobat – Julian Close
Journalist – Alastair Moore
Servant – Julian Boyce
Designer – Louise Ratcliffe
Mother – Jessica Handley Greaves
15-year-old girl – Anitra Blaxhall
Police Commissioner – Simon Crosby Buttle
Clown – Jasey Hall
Stagehand – George Newton-Fitzgerald


Director – David Pountney
Set Designer – Johan Engels
Costume Designer – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer – Mark Jonathan
Associate Director – Caroline Clegg
Musical Preparation – Stephen Wood
Genesis Assistant Director – Polly Graham
Assistant Conductor – Anthony Negus
Language Coach – Jacqueline Pischorn
Stage Manager – Katie Heath-Jones
Production Manager – Robert Pagett


Wedekind held a prominent position in Alban Berg’s pantheon of artistic heroes. Indeed, Lulu might have been a more ‘perfect’ opera if the composer had been a little less besotted with the German playwright or if the libretto had been prepared not by the composer, but by an experienced writer able to keep a slightly greater distance from Wedekind’s text. What was needed was the kind of figure who acted as an intermediary between between Shakespeare and Verdi in Macbeth and Otello whose primary loyalty was not to the dramatic text but to the needs of the composer.

Berg’s admiration for Wedekind was such that, although it allows him to take some liberties with the two plays on which Lulu was based (Erdgeist and Die Buchse der Pandora) it finally inhibits the kind of ruthless cutting and concentration surely necessary if an entirely satisfactory libretto was to be created. What Berg produced, though it undeniably has its moments of very real power, is clottedly full of ambiguities, abounding in characters but short on characterisation, episodic in ways that can hardly avoid confusing most audiences. Its nexus of themes, which include sexual obsession, the corruptions of money and power, violence, hypocrisy, the presence of the animal within the human and much more, generates great intensity, but lends itself to theatrical and musical concentration only occasionally. Some greater degree of concentration is achieved, in this production, by the use of Eberhard Kloke’s completion of the Third Act (which Berg left unfinished) rather than the older one by Friedrich Cerha which certainly benefits the first scene of Act III. (Kloke’s version is altogether less diffuse dramatically).

David Pountney’s striking production doesn’t try to gloss over the confusions of Berg’s libretto. Indeed it does something to add to them, but handles the whole in a way which carries immense theatrical conviction, even if not every member of every audience will be sure exactly who is who and how they are ‘related’ to one another. The theatrical idiom draws on the language of dream, of animal fable, of the circus and the cabaret and, broadly speaking, expressionism. Unchanged throughout is Johan Engels’ huge metal frame in the shape of a dome. It serves as a kind of skeletal frame of a circus big top; as a prison both literal and metaphorical (Piranesi comes to mind as figures go up and down its spiral staircase); as a gallows, from which the bodies of Lulu’s ‘victims’ hang above proceedings throughout Acts II and II.

The staging makes little attempt to distinguish the settings, whether in Paris and London. The landscape is a ‘moral’ one rather than a matter of geography. Aspects of the production vividly develop the hints provided by the Prologue, in which the Animal Trainer introduces his menagerie of performing animals. Lulu’s introduction as the snake cannot entirely escape the obvious Biblical overtones but is here more important as a preparation for the ophidian elements in Lulu’s wardrobe (as designed by Marie-Jeanne Lecca)’ In broader terms the prologue is a preparation for Pountney’s extensive use of animal masks/heads in the three acts that follow. This, no doubt, has something to do with the director’s view of this opera and the Cunning Little Vixen as closely related, but, independently, it makes much sense as a vivid image of the society Wedekind/Berg delineate – a society, that is, in which it is impossible to be fully human, in which servants wander the stage more dead than alive and in which most behaviour is no more than the expression of appetite.

This is not, I suspect, either a work or a production in which individual performances can usefully be judged in terms of human/psychological plausibility. With the partial exception of Dr. Schön and Countess Geschwitz (Lulu’s lesbian lover) the characters are largely devoid of the power of self analysis or of the inner judgement of their own behaviour. Most, indeed, are not ‘human’ figures. David Pountney sees Lulu herself as a beautiful animal or as a spirit (as Wedekind’s title, Erdgeist, suggests). Lulu has several names: including Mignon and Eve. Other members of the cast are types (many don’t have names of their own, being, rather the Artist, the Negro, the Professor of Medicine, the Prince, the Marquis, the Schoolboy, the Banker, the Acrobat, the Journalist, the Servant, the Police Commissioner et al. This is a work less interested in what goes on inside the heads of individuals than in how they deal with one another in a particular kind of society.

In a ‘narrative’ so peopled with non-people and so full of incident, the symmetries and repetitions of Berg’s musichave an important role in the creation of a degree of containing order. Lothar Koenigs and the orchestra of Welsh National Opera respond splendidly to the task of articulating both the patterns and the luminously beautiful details of Berg’s orchestral writing. No one lets the side down vocally. Marie Arnet copes admirably with the demanding music Berg writes for Lulu, and the top end of her voice is often both powerful and beautiful. Natascha Petrinsky is a convincing presence, in vocal terms and also theatrically, as Countess Geschwitz, while Ashley Holland makes a good deal of sense of Dr. Schön’s inner turmoil and sings with convincing authority, even if he is somewhat stiff in his reincarnation as Jack the Ripper. Peter Hoare has some fine moments as Alwa, most notably in his Act II exchanges with Lulu. Richard Angas is a strong, and often disturbing, presence as the Animal Tamer and Schigolch.

No production of Lulu can, I suspect, be entirely ‘satisfying’, given the nature of the work. But this production, by the time we get to its bloody conclusion – the stage more heavily freighted with bodies than in almost any Jacobean tragedy – provokes a degree of understanding that has escaped some of its predecessors.

Glyn Pursglove