Thursday, 11 June 2009

Lulu at the Royal Opera

A fine opera with a fine cast and something rather special going on in the pit. It should be a shattering experience but I left "merely" dazed. Why?



Clearly this is a tricky opera to produce. It's serial language, extreme vocal demands and relentlessness mean that only the best will do, which is why we saw old favourites on stage - Howell, Langridge, Larmore, Michael Volle. Those who we haven't come across before become fixed in mind - Hartmann, Shipp. I had never heard of Agneta Eichenholz before either but her name and, crucially, her cool palette of features from ironic to a startled glaze, will ring in the memory for a while to come. Here was a fine Lulu: consistent singing across a fearsome tessitura; good acting (good looks). I could have done with one more vocal gear for critical moments of the piece but was too absorbed by the character for it to really matter by that stage.

Whatever the cast do though it's always going to be through the prism of the director. I think that Christof Loy's production is a worthy one, although he tries to have his cake and eat it. The design is b&w minimalist, with blocking and acting to match, an economical arrangement which I believe tries to draw the focus onto the characters - into the characters - as a working exercise in uncluttering action and score. Many will say it is an essay in film noir (of course the opera has a sequence of 'film music' within it) with its monochromaticism and Reinhard Traub's elegant, thoughtful lighting. Yet the sensibility is not shadow/intrigue. Rather the action is pushed up at the front of the stage, the lighting and design suggesting that there is nothing to hid. Suicide, murder and sex occurs centre-stage at the front of the action. The painting of Lulu is conceptualised by the use of a bright spotlight on the antiheroine, searching out and isolating but comparably unreal. Ceci n'est pas une peinture, as Magritte might have said.

(*Actually, the set design reminded me of the Sophie Muller video for PJ Harvey's This Is Love, which is also b&w and makes cunning use of the easy inversion of this monochromaticism simply by changing the lighting.)

There's a general detachment from the piece which is in keeping with the opera itself; Alwa stumbles through the opera thinking how it might make a good opera. Music vanishes at points, either for genuine melodrama or backstory/exposition. Loy's production surely tracks this self-awareness (in a work that begins with the Animal Trainer inviting us inside the 'menagerie' but with the implication that we're already on show) and also nods towards the revolutionary reductionism of Brechtian epic theatre. Indeed, the only time the 'set', a frosted glass wall, is used is when Lulu performs the other side of it in an offstage cabaret during Act 1, Scene 3.

Loy's intelligent deconstruction only works so far though. There are important entrances, exits and tragedies that only work with doors, of which there are none. The coolness of the production is also a hindrance - I didn't feel myself borne on or consumed by spumes of passion and felt detached from loving exchanges (and there are genuine moments of love and tenderness). Instead I had to rely on the action in the pit, which, although beautiful, isn't the drama sui generis - it's not Wagnerian in the Tristan manner of musico-dramatic Gesamtkunstwerk (I was reminded of my experience watching the Herbert Wernicke Tristan in this house eight years ago, in which a static, austerely reductionsit production meant that all the attention gravitated towards Haitink and the orchestra).

A key crack in the concept comes in the tricky ensemble scene of Act 3, the Jungfrau shares sequence. Where the principal cast battled on with some success the minor parts simply played out another opera, without sufficient awareness of the fourth-wall-straddling going on. It doesn't help that they're forced to the back (and by this point, the very back) of the stage for most of the action. I also felt that Act 3 had let the rest of the idea down when Loy posits the final scene in the space (and often blocking) of the first. This is symmetrical overkill: we're meant to be aware that the grotesque clients of Lulu's final employment are mutations of the earlier characters but there should also be a sense of lapsarian pathos. Dressing Eichenholz in Pagliaccoesque white bow tie on black and having her made up to look pale was insufficient.

Fine singing, fine music making. An intelligent but problem-punctured production. You can't fault anyone for trying.

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