Opera Review by Polly Hope

LULU. Alban Berg
Royal Opera House London. Summer 2009

Is Lulu one of the greats of contemporary opera? Who really knows? Yet it is getting on for eighty years old. Certainly as the years whoosh by it does get easier to sit through. Sometimes it almost sounds sweet and melodic. Maybe it is one of the greats and will snuggle down beside Figaro and Rosenkavalier. But it will be eventually rather than just yet.

This super elegant new production at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden is pretty wonderful, more especially if you go for the German minimal effect so fashionable at the moment.

Sex is always popular and us nosey parkers can’t resist being voyeurs at erotic and criminal events. Freud saw to that, and nowadays we are allowed to indulge in public rather than just in private garconnieres, so LULU is always a dirty treat.

Here we have a very cleanuped treat. Nothing but a wall of glass near the front of the stage, an elegant device by the superb theatre designer Herbert Muraurer. Just a vertical glass wall and a single chair, and that’s your lot for three hours. Mind you, the lighting design of Reinhard Traub slithers and sparkles with never ending cleverness; these two Austrians true to their central European heritage, give us the visual works.

Christof Loy, the director, is at his most minimal. The wide and shallow stage is Greek in its proportions, except everyone comes and goes at the side rather than through the traditional three doors at the back of the stage. Loy has made the drama almost ancient Greek as well in its simplicity, and boy does this complicated text need simplifying! Lulu is no longer a gold digging bimbo, more of a damaged teenager blown hither and thither through a fetid jungle of men’s embracing arms.

I am not sure that this reading quite works; Lulu appears to have no erotic lure about her, and even her little black dress doesn’t fit too well. Hard to believe she is rich, and an irresistible sex bomb. The men are all in grey suits, smart or bedraggled, but still grey suits, and when Lulu is caught in an embrace it is more gymnastics than desire.

However the music is superb; Pappano drags every texture and sound out of the huge orchestra. That single pin can be heard dropping even up in the gods. Love, and a lot of work, has gone into his reading of this anxious and complicated score.

All the singers are terrific, and there are a lot of solo parts in this opera, but the grey suits, [see above,] makes it hard to tell who is exactly who unless you are already familiar with the text. Lulu herself, the Swedish soprano, Agneta Eichenholtz, is unquestionably the best sounding Lulu I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot. She makes the rough and difficult music all sweetness and light. Her voice shimmers in the cool space. Alas, she portrays Lulu, as this lost orphan with no independent will. It is impossible to believe she is rich, tiresome and vicious to her lovers.

The men all fall for her, but why? So this turns the story into something that is done to her rather than Lulu herself running her own destiny. Impossible to pick one of the male roles out to praise, they are all excellent. Jennifer Larmore sings the Countess, but is too sweet and not in the same league as Lulu.

A most stimulating evening giving rise to lots of careful thinking, this surely is what opera should do at its best? None of the audience walked out of the premiere and I certainly was gripped, though this enthusiasm did slacken off come Act 3.

Congratulations to all concerned. Would I check out another performance? Frankly no. I wasn’t disturbed, or shocked or, even at the end, interested enough to suffer another thee hours of ear and bum ache. Come to think of it, this production would work well on the small screen. Single figures standing around can be very poignant close up on television.

This production goes off to Madrid in August; I wonder what the gutsy Spanish will make of it?

Polly Hope.