Mirrors, reflections, and imagined images are the themes of Dmitri
Bertmann’s revival of his 2002 production of Lulu at the
Helikon Opera. Each of Lulu’s multiple paramours sees in her not what
she is – a capricious but innocent pleasure-seeking girl, guilty only
of enjoying seductions and sex – but what they wish to see in her, and
make out of her. Reinforcing this, a stunning set by Igor Nezhny and
Tatiana Tulubieva comprises giant distorted mirrors on rolling trucks.
Lulu is dressed not as a courtesan or seductress – but as a normal and
attractive girl in a peach-coloured dress. The dysfunctionality of her
suitors is apparent in their costumes – Dr Schoen has shoes which point
backwards, and a hunchback; the Artist wears his palette as a jacket;
Alva has grotesquely large "Kenny Everett" hands; the Schoolboy
has monkey-ears; whilst Countess Geschwitz wears unfeasibly ankle-length
kipper ties. Hold a mirror up to nature, Bertmann says, and you’ll find
it is us – the editor, the artist, the young lover, the student – who
are nature’s freaks, and compulsive-lover Lulu who is the "norm".
Each of us acts from selfish self-interest – only Lulu can be unstintingly
generous in her love to all. Watching without comment is a semi-chorus
of extra-terrestrials with noses like vacuum-cleaner hoses.
This latter idea seems initially preposterous, but
if we take the composer’s intentions seriously – that human life is
a kind of freak-show in which people behave as animals, as stated in
the Prologue – then these bizarre observers establish the freak-show
nature of the action of the opera itself. When the final bars ended,
the audience was left emotionally stunned by the ghastly scenes they
had witnessed – who did not recognise a part of themselves in what had
taken place on stage? No-one, evidently, was sufficiently without fault
to cast the first stone - and the cathartic experience of an expressway
ride to hell’s moral depths finally elicited broad cheers and devoted
applause from even the initially uncertain. Except those who walked-out
– of whom there were several, including my neighbours. As the scenes
tick-by, C19th lithographs – a favourite Bertmann obsession – of a naked
Lulu appear frame-by-frame – first the feet, then the legs, then the
crotch, and upwards, like some pornographic Advent Calendar. Her murder
is achieved by Jack the Ripper sending these frames spinning with deft
knife-blows…although Geschwitz catches the blade full-force. The girl
whose image all sought to make their own is murdered in image only.
Tatiana Kuinji is a descendant of the famous Russian "light-and-shade"
master-painter, whose works hang in all of Russia’s art-galleries –
most appropriately, since the gradation of tone-quality and expression
is one of the highlights of her spectacular talent in the title role.
Her tiny frame (she is under 5’ tall) coped admirably with a highly
physical production that required her to sing lying-down, facing stage
rear, underneath the scenery, and hanging upside down. It’s a performance
which saw her nominated for an award she’s already won on previous occasions,
the Golden Mask awards – Russia’s equivalent of the BAFTAs. With no
disrespect to the other cast (everything at Helikon is double-cast)
of Lulu, it’s hard to imagine who might give a better, holistic, musically
precise and complete performance of this taxing role?
Mikhail Davydov gave an equally committed performance as Dr Schoen
– whose love for Lulu is internalised, intellectualised, and inert,
and whose tragedy is that he can offer her nothing except his attention
and fine words. Mikhail Seryshev’s self-obsessed Artist was a
super characterisation, neatly contrasted by Dmitri Kalin’s adonistic
and well-sing Athlete – who had some top-ranking business with
the elastic figure of Ilya Ilin as Lulu’s hyperactive schoolboy
lover, forever being hurled behind bits of scenery by rival admirers.
Real-life champion body-builder Maxim Losev played Jack The Ripper
as a mute – he acts as the reincarnation of Schoen, seeking revenge
on Lulu, and Schoen sings the final scene.
The dishevelled reprobate Schigolch is one of the few who does not prey
upon Lulu, and his shuffling sordidness was a gift to able character
bass Dmitri Ovchinnikov. Perhaps the only admirer whose love for Lulu
is selfless is Countess Geschwitz – her "failing" is not of
her own making, that she is a lesbian. This was the latest in a series
of astonishing portrayals by Svetlana Rossiyskaya, whose final chilling
murder-scene was one of the vocal highlights of an evening already spangled
with outstanding performances. Many of the cast also appeared in other
supporting roles, where Marina Karpachenko and Denis Kirpanev also shone
amongst an all-star cast.
Conductor Vladimir Ponkin brought together this colossal
musical undertaking – in the Cerha completion of Act 3. The orchestra
is hardly recognisable as the same ensemble who teetered precipitously
through Verdi only five years ago, in this young company – this was
world-class playing which richly deserves to be recorded. A special
word of praise is due to Sergey Chechetko, whose brilliant and sensitive
playing of the piano part illustrated the general outstanding standard
of all the playing. On the eve of the performance, Ponkin heard that
he had received a Golden Mask Award for the production, Best Opera Conductor
– an outstanding achievement when Valery Gergiev is another nominee,
and richly deserved for this phenomenal achievement.
Lulu goes on tour to the Ravenna Festival this summer,
along with other works in the Helikon repertoire.
The Helikon Opera is Moscow’s resident full-time
avant-garde opera ensemble, founded by producer Dmitri Bertmann in 1993.
They perform in the highly un-ideal circumstances of a C19th aristocratic
home adjacent to the Moscow Conservatoire, whose listed-building status
precludes the installation of conventional stage equipment. A new stage
and backstage facilities are planned for 2007, in a subterranean development
beneath the present building.