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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Alban Berg, Lulu: Soloists, English National Opera, Coliseum, 18 April 2005 (TJH)


A plastic menagerie is the image that greets us in the opening scene of Richard Jones’ Lulu, a set piece symbolic of Jones’ approach to the opera as a whole: stylised, garish, wonderfully tacky – but ultimately empty. By emphasising the theatricality of Berg’s “tragic farce”, this revival of ENO’s 2002 production misses the opera’s central irony: that despite effectively being a cipher for others’ sexual desires, Lulu herself is – or should be – the only character to rise above the level of archetype.

Instead, the Director joins the Professor, the Painter, the Newspaper Editor and the Composer in reforging Lulu to suit his own personal tastes. Jones paints her as a comic book femme fatale, no more real than the cheesecake portraits adorning the walls in every scene; the result is that – despite a nuanced and charismatic performance from American soprano Lisa Saffer – one feels uninvolved and unmoved by her ultimate downfall.

But if Jones goes to great lengths to keep reality at bay, at least one cannot fault his consistency in doing so. Berg’s Prologue already casts the ensuing action as little more than a gaudy sideshow; Jones takes this idea further, providing a symmetrical Epilogue that neatly frames the opera as a cruel and sleazy form of “Adult Entertainment”. The seedy world contained therein is vividly realised, replete with retro telephones, plaster cherubs and ceramic canines, and is further enlivened by Buki Schiff’s eye-popping costumes, running the gamut from chiffon to PVC.

But the show’s chief asset is undoubtedly Lisa Saffer, who – despite suffering the after-effects of a throat infection on opening night – sang with great authority, making light work of Berg’s acrobatic vocal lines. If her voice was not at its strongest on Monday, she compensated with a memorable study in instinctive seduction, perfectly capturing the coquettish playfulness with which her character ensnares and despatches her successive husbands in the first two acts, only approaching a greater self-awareness in the third.

Of the other major roles, Robert Hayward as Dr Schön was convincing as a naturally dominant man rendered powerless by his protégé’s infatuation for him; his chilling reappearance as Jack the Ripper in the final scene brought the evening’s best singing. Also standing out in a generally strong cast were Gwynne Howell as Lulu’s incestuous “father” Schigolch, Robert Poulton as the scheming, self-serving Acrobat, and Anna Burford and Alan Oke in several roles each. The only real disappointment was Susan Parry’s Countess Geschwitz, though this was partly because Jones undercut her big moment in the last act with a showy coup de thêatre, and partly due to yet more vocal infirmity; at any rate, she failed to make much of an impression in a role that is in many ways the heart of the opera.

Nor did Paul Daniel make much of an impression in the pit, failing to bring out either the score’s acidic modernity or its post-Romantic voluptuousness. This is his last production as ENO’s music director, and though the orchestra played well enough for him – with special mention to Julian Brewer’s trumpet and Gonzalo Acosta’s solo violin – he failed to give the score enough space to really make an impact. A pity, because impact is something this production, despite its many fine moments, is sorely lacking.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Lulu reviewed in 2002

Lisa Saffert and Richard Coxon in Lulu, 18 April 2005. Photos: Neil Libbert, ENO



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