Berg - Lulu

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday October 21 2012

Conductor: Paul Daniel. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Choreography: Claude Bardouil. Video: Denis Guéguin. Lulu: Barbara Hannigan. Grafin Geschwitz: Natascha Petrinsky. Gymnasiast & groom: Frances Bourne. Maler & Neger: Tom Randle. Dr. Schön & Jack The Ripper: Dietrich Henschel. Alwa: Charles Workman. Schigolch: Pavlo Hunka. Tierbändiger & Athlet: Ivan Ludlow. Prinz, Kammerdiener & Marquis: (Replaced). Theaterdirektor & Bankier: Rúni Brattaberg. Mutter: Mireille Capelle. Kunstgewerblerin: Beata Morawska. Journalist: Benoît De Leersnyder. Polizeikommissar, Medizinalrat & Professor: Gerard Lavalle. Diener: Charles Dekeyser. Eine Fünfzehnjährige: Anna Maistriau. Ballerina: Rosalba Torres Guerrero. Dancer: Claude Bardouil. Orchestre symphonique de la Monnaie.

“She [Berg’s illegitimate daughter] no doubt dreamed of becoming an artist herself as a means of existing one day in her father’s eyes. And Berg, surely not by chance, made of his Lulu a young woman without parents, aspiring to become a dancer. Based on this, I imagined a girl who, though she lived through the very worst in her childhood, living in grim orphanages and bad company, never gave up her dream of something pure, something virginal like classical ballet, a world where the greatest ballerinas are worshipped […] Lulu surely fantasised, during her drab and miserable teens, about being admired for her talent and beauty. Since Aronofksy’s The Black Swan came out, dance schools have been filled with young girls moved by the film and dreaming of becoming prima ballerinas. Swan Lake has become a pop phenomenon. It’s fascinating to see thousands of teenage girls taking up a strict, disciplined lifestyle because they are filled with dreams of the absolute.”

This quotation from an interview with Krzysztof Warlikowski on La Monnaie’s website (my translation) holds the key to at least some of his complex staging of Lulu. It helps explain the characters lining up on theatre seats at the start, facing the audience, in dinner jackets and evening dresses, for a ballet. The little girls in tutus crowding in and practising at various stages, brushing their hair, changing into their nighties and getting into institutional beds, all with Schigolch’s help. And one – the child Lulu presumably – looking on at Lulu’s death. Lulu is sometimes in a tutu, white or black, and (really) on points herself, with or without a red, Adidas tracksuit top. And act one ends, not with its final chords but with the death of the black swan (danced by Rosalba Torres Guerrero), in silence.

But as usual with Warlikowski, there are plenty of other references, e.g. to Eve, Lolita, Pandora - and Lilith: the production opens with a text about her, spoken by the ringmaster (in a black spangled dress black lace body stocking and glittery black mask, whose muscular double – servant, dancer, child-minder, fate…- wears glossy black stilettos as well) before his sung prologue. Grainy video projections, in colour or black & white, on HD screens or across all the set, show a succession of femmes fatales – or of Lulu’s portraits (the painter is, in this production, a photographer in jeans and basketball boots) – and “comment” on the action.

There’s a single set: a large, white-tiled space with parquet floors and, to the left, an art deco escalator of the London Underground kind leading up to the entrance/exit; to the right, a glass cage that glides back and forth on rails. The menagerie is there: a stuffed bear, a crocodile on the floor… A silver lamé curtain is sometimes pulled across mid-stage; a black lamé panel sometimes lowers at the front, hiding part but not all of the set. There are (inevitably, people might say; some critics did) washbasins, coming – like the leather divan - in handy at times. In London, it snows. The costumes and hairdos are somewhere between the sixties and now, wigs change frequently, the athlete is in glitter, torn jeans and cowboy boots and Jack the Ripper is, as one critic put it, a cross between Andy Warhol and The Joker.

This is, then, a detailed and uncompromising production. As usual, it's wonderfully lit: stark white, deep colours, reflections... The acting is finely directed and fully committed throughout, and Barbara Hannigan’s performance is remarkable in more ways than one: how do you go about finding a soprano able to sing Lulu, near-naked in only a lace bra and knickers, on points? She was wholly convincing as a supremely indifferent but "tragic elf” (words I stole from French reviews) – a waif, albeit not a very sympathetic one. Another word I might steal from the press is “glacial” – to me, in this production, neither supremely indifferent Lulu nor anyone else much excites our sympathy. There’s no warmth in the staging or in the pit: either the Monnaie Orchestra was too busy struggling with the detail of this taxing score to round off the sound, or Paul Daniel was deliberately avoiding anything remotely lush. This was, I thought, more brittle abstract expressionism than late or post romanticism, and I personally found Berg’s forms harder to follow than usual.

With its multiple focal points: the singers, “offstage” action in the glass cage, the children, extras and two levels of video, the production isn’t easy to follow either. You need to know the plot and my neighbours in fact lost it. The little old lady on the left slept through much of the first act and from then on complained she had no idea who was alive, who was dead and who had killed whom. The man behind concluded “Je me suis fait chier”, i.e. was bored “shitless” and had, he said, had more than enough (“marre” in French) of people rolling on the floor with their legs in the air, wide apart. Dense and detailed, dramatic and cerebral and “busy” (though the “busy”-ness of Paris’s Les Paladins didn’t stop me loving that) there were times I thought the production, so obvious a directing tour de force, risked stealing Berg’s and the singers’ thunder. This is one to see several times before making a final judgment.

With such a strong team cast there’s no need to spend much time on individuals. Barbara Hannigan, naked or clothed, on points or not, standing, seated or stretched on her back enjoying cunnilingus (or possibly even helped by it), artfully nailed the crippling high notes but was less audible below, especially in ensembles. Dietrich Henschel, looking remarkably young and fit as Alwa’s in-this-case unlikely father, and the sumptuous, glamorous Natascha Petrinsky were the real vocal stars – though others might say as much of the brave Charles Workman, whose tremulous sound just isn’t to my taste.

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