LULU Alban Berg
Welsh National Opera
The Millennium Centre Cardiff. Wales

Review by Polly Hope

Cardiff, well a long way to go for an opera, but I also wanted to see Zaha Hadid’s new great opera house. Such things don’t get built very often nowadays. Yes, it is enormous seating almost two thousand, but I think the lady forgot she was building an opera house and has given the city an airport terminal. However not my job today to write architectural criticism,

So LULU, every year now becoming more secure in its place as one of the most important operas of the 20th century. No, I don’t know what means either; lets say it is firmly established in the mainstream of operas. Which is extraordinary as it is still considered difficult music, especially in a provincial city such as Cardiff, yet it is heading towards its centenary.

Lulu’s history is complicated, it was written in bits, and sections were performed from 1918 onwards but a proper premiere of the first two acts had to wait until 1937, and the last act, which was still unfinished at Berg’s death, was not completed until 1974 by Friedrich Cerha. Yet despite the cut and paste solution to long term composing it now all hangs beautifully together in a fine production, and this one definitely is.

The curtain opens, can’t really write that these days, curtains rarely open, one stumbles into the auditorium, with an unlit set in full view. No surprises. For Lulu here there is a coloured drop, which rises to reveal the entire stage filled with what looks like a chrome gasometer, if you can remember such a thing. This stays put for the entire three hour performance, but has many secrets, it lights up, is climbed all over, has an internal spiral staircase which the protagonists scramble up and vanish into the heavens from. Dead people hang from it, girls are seduced on it and dinner is served from it, and in the second act it is half filled with bread rolls, which the singers jump about on. Johan Engels, the designer, has done a great job, a circus, a cage for the animals, luxury and squalor, this edifice becomes them all, and I could see that it packs up well when Lulu goes on tour.

So we meet the animals and the singers. The story of Lulu, despite having seen the work many times, I still find almost impossible to follow. All Lulu’s men tend to look and behave in the same way, but then perhaps that is what they are meant to? German expressionism doesn’t go in for jokes, which sometimes can be a way for telling people apart. Anyway the story is simple when it allows you to understand it; riches to rags, the mistakes of a sex crazed gold digger.

I am reminded of Edith Sitwell’s and William Walton’s Facade, the same period and nutty characters, but Walton’s music is deliciously funny, I wonder if perhaps a little of Sitwell’s tongue in cheek wit might not have been a good idea? But then I am not German with my need to be released from all this angst

The costumes are sumptuous, Marie-Jeanne Lecca can always be relied upon for these, but she has excelled herself here, sort of the 1930s without being historical, glittering and colourful without being garish and comic book. Clever stuff.

Ah the singers, yes of course, well all are good, difficult stuff to sing, even to learn would be hard but to perform? Cripes they are good. The Lulu of Marie Arnet is exceptional, amazingl she makes Lulu’s arias sound sweetly romantic, yet maintaining iciness. Natascha Petrinsky sings the Countess Geschwitz brilliantly. What a part to play, an aristocratic lesbian besotted with Lulu with wonderful music. She excels. All the singers are just right, and casting this cannot have been easy.

As for the orchestra, knock out good, Lothar Koenigs coaxed lyrical sounds from the pit, I’ve never heard Berg’s music played thus before,it was a very good. Yes, the music is difficult and spiky and complex and not meant as a sing-along. The acoustic of this new house is excellent as are the sight lines, [might as well add this as so often a bald banker is blocking my entire view.].

The director, the mastermind that holds the whole shebang together, is David Pountney and yet again he has done a most excellent job. Pountney’s productions are clear and thought about and not a detail ever missed, extraordinary attention to even the smallest walk across the back of the stage. Lulu is difficult to make clear with nineteen individual characters to delineate. As I wrote Lulu’s men are difficult to tell apart though the costumes help. Sometimes the singers speak and it is through a megaphone, certainly their voices sound like the early talkies. This idea works well and makes a break from the non-stop complexity of the music. Pountney notches up the horrors slowly until that final crunch when Lulu is murdered. Clever stuff, Pountney keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, he is to be congratulated.

One moan, the sous-titles, written both in English and Welsh, bit pretentious this as all the Welsh speak English, are too small to read even with glasses on in the centre of the stalls.

When this production comes near you definitely go and see it. It is worth a long drive.

Polly Hope