Berg - Lulu

BNP Bastille - Monday October 24 2011

Conductor: Michael Schonwandt. Production: Willy Decker. Sets & costumes: Wolfgang Gussman. Lighting: Hans Toelsede. Lulu: Laura Aikin. Gräfin Geschwitz: Jennifer Larmore. Eine Theatergarderobiere, Ein Gymnasiast, Ein Groom: Andrea Hill. Der Maler, Der Neger: Marlin Miller. Dr Schön, Jack: Wolfgang Schöne. Alwa: Kurt Streit. Der Tierbändiger, Ein Athlet: Scott Wilde. Schigolch: Franz Grundheber. Der Prinz, Der Kammerdiener, Der Marquis: Robert Wörle. Der Theaterdirektor, Der Bankier: Victor Von Halem. Eine Fünfzehnjährige: Julie Mathevet. Ihre Mutter: Marie-Thérèse Keller. Die Kunstgewerblerin: Marianne Crebassa. Der Journalist: Damien Pass. Ein Diener: Ugo Rabec. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Willy Decker’s production of Lulu, now over ten years old, has established itself as something of a modern classic in the Bastille repertoire. It is all that Martinoty’s recent Faust, in stark contrast, is not. It is intelligent, relatively simple (and presumably relatively cheap), coherent and legible, there are a few good ideas properly worked through, there are some striking images, and the acting is detailed, well-drilled to the last gesture, committed and convincing. It is less relentlessly sordid than Lulu might be in other hands - though Lulu’s treatment of the countess is explicitly harsh - and exploits the plot’s comic potential as well as the tragic.

The set is the same throughout: a high-walled arena, circus or amphitheatre, in exaggerated perspective, so the wall curving from the rear rises rapidly to the front, to the full height of the stage. Wall and floor are streaked in shades of pale straw. Behind and above the arena rise tiers of seats or terraces, black. There are multiple doors, open or shut depending on the action, and one or more ladders, as well as the props needed (often red or with a touch of red) to set the scene. There are also two key “presences”: menacing men in black coats and trilby hats, either observing from the tiers or joining in the action (there’s a touch of the “dirty old man” here in this essentially sexist work); and Lulu’s nude portrait, whole or in parts, on loose canvas, stretched or framed, in every scene, whether mentioned in the text or not (1).

The curtain rises before the music starts. Lulu, with orange, bobbed hair, is sitting on display with her back to the audience on a red stepladder, under a spotlight: the first striking image. She is dressed in the flesh-coloured slip, her breasts and pubic hair highlighted to recall her portrait, that she will wear throughout under whatever else she may slip on or off. One by one, the men in black file in on the black tiers above and sit with their hands on their knees to watch the prologue.

In act 1 scene 1, the stage is filled with blank canvases of various sizes and Goll is dramatically handed down, in a violet suit, into the arena from above by the men in black – no ladder. In scene 2 we discover the Mae West sofa (in the form of red lips) that has, over time, become the symbol of this production and Shigolch makes the first of his entrances and exits by ladder. In scene 3, the props are dressmaker’s dummies, a whole crowd of them, wearing Lulu’s many 20s stage costumes in shades of red, pink, purple and plum. The African prince, in yellow tiger stripes and a leopard-skin hat, and the dresser are comic figures – she, for example, takes a desperate swig herself before handing the glass to Lulu to recover from her faint.

Act two opens with grey leather club chairs in a circle and a grand piano to the left. The first scene is treated almost as bedroom farce, with people dashing in and out through the many doors and hiding behind furniture and in the piano, Lulu sitting atop to keep the lid down. It ends with another of the striking images: Lulu in an “art deco” pose under a stark spotlight as she’s arrested by the men in black. After the film music (no film), the furniture is under dust covers and all is grey.

Lulu’s act 3 party takes place around a brightly-lit, circular bar. Gaily-dressed, tipsy guests (the women in extravagant wigs) wear conical party hats and carouse under showers of streamers and confetti – as do the men in black, up on the tiers. For the final, gloomy scene, all the doors are open and as well as multiple black ladders there are empty black frames strewn around. The terraces above are the dark street where Lulu works and the men in black are the punters. As Jack carries Lulu off, the men in black slip into the arena, crowd round and slowly raise their knives, then disperse rapidly after the kill.

The acting throughout this production is excellent and dominated, as is the singing, by Laura Aikin’s initially playful and innocent, later manipulative, and finally neurotic Lulu, leading the dance. “What a mover!” as a friend e-mailed to me later. (2)

Lulu must be one of the most magnificent scores in the operatic repertoire and one of the biggest challenges to singers brave enough to take it on. In the vast barn of the Bastille, with the great maw of the orchestra pit gaping at their feet, it makes even tougher demands on them all. It makes little sense, with such as strong cast as this year’s, to make comparisons. On Monday night, Laura Aikin, as I said, dominated, but she was well supported by Kurt Streit at the absolute peak (and no doubt limit!) of his current form, a great Schön (marvellous confrontations with Lulu), a great athlete… and Jennifer Larmore, unexpected in the role and unrecognisably slimmed down, who emitted some truly beautiful sounds in the final scene. Even the banker and high school boy were excellent. I mgiht have like a bit more Viennese Schmaltz from the pit (sustained string playing à la Bruckner isn't a French forte), but that's splitting hairs.

I wondered, writing up Faust, if after Mireille and Francesca de Rimini, Nicolas Joël was trying to prove a point. The contrast between that Faust and this Lulu seems to make another…

(1) An omniscient mussel in the US writes: "Whether it's mentioned in the sung text or not, the portrait is mentioned in the stage directions for every scene, and the set of chords that act as the portrait's leitmotif  appear whenever the portrait is referred to in the dialogue or the stage directions."

(2) For a more intelligently analytical review, rather than this flat description, see Opera Cake.

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