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Berg,  Lulu:  Soloists, Orquestra Simfònica Liceu. Conductor: Michael Boder. Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona. 3.11.2010 (JMI)

New production in coproduction with Grand Theatre de Geneve

Direction: Olivier Py

Sets and Costumes: Pierre-André Wietz

Lighting: Bertrand Killy

Lulu: Patricia Petibon

Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper: Ashley Holland

Alwa: Paul Groves

Schigolch: Franz Grundheber

Painter: Will Hartmann

Countess Gesswitz: Julia Juon

Schigolch (Franz Grundheber) and Lulu (Patricia Petibon
Picture © C.Antoni Bofill

Last year Lulu opened the season at Madrid's Teatro Real in a minimalist and dark production by Christoph Loy. The audience didn’t like it and deserted in droves at each intermission. I wrote then that Lulu should be offered in a realistic and colourful production, especially for a public not used to this kind of opera : in Barcelona the production by Olivier Py has followed the latter path and the result was very different from the one in Madrid. There have still been desertions at the breaks among the less-than-sell-out crowd, but far fewer than Madrid. This does not mean that the production by this French director is above criticism, but at least the overall result is positive.

Olivier Py has become in recent years the "Enfant Terrible" of the French Theatre and his works always are controversial, being Geneva the most faithful city to the stage works by Olivier Py. This production premiered in Geneva last February and it was received with widespread criticism. Olivier Py presents a Lulu in a modern, urban atmosphere. Within a corrupt society and Lulu is but its victim. This concept–not particularly original—uses sets that locate the action in a reduced space full of people and props at the front of the stage, while at the back consists of moving modules in the form of shop windows, sex shops and funeral homes, a butcher and a porn cinema. These modules first move from left to right offering interior shorts and then return further back on stage, moving back to the left, their neon-lit fronts facing the action and the audience.

This urban vision is particularly annoying in the first Act, since the constant movement of the modules and the action within them makes it hard to focus on the actual action of the opera. Things work better in Act II, when the modules don’t move, except to show Lulu in court, her entrance into the prison hospital and her subsequent escape thanks to Countess Gesswitz... and all those scenes are effectively done. Ditto the cabaret scene, where Lulu works and triumphs, as well as Schigolch’s murder of the Acrobat. There are moments of great beauty, particularly Lulu’s death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, disguised as Santa Claus under in a snow storm.

Olivier Py indulges in a few excesses, as well... letting Lulu—already properly murdered—respond to the (equally murdered) Gesswitz’ wish to see her one more time... which Lulu, unimpeded by death, does in style by baring it all.

Nakedness features heavily everywhere, actually, in Olivier Py’s production. Lulu is constantly seen in the flesh, as if we wouldn’t otherwise get the drift of what kind of woman she is. And then the stage is littered with all kinds of supernumeraries in full swing, simulating sexual activity, leaving out no imaginable position, and adding perhaps a few new ones to the repertoire, too. Costumes—when they are worn—are fun and colourful. Why Mr. Py dresses Schigolch in clown costumes, however, escaped me. In sum: a remarkable work with some obvious, but potentially educational, excesses.

Michael Boder, the current and outgoing music director of the Liceu, conducted. For the last few years his performances have not exactly been brilliant nor has he gotten the kind of performances from his orchestra they should be capable of. On this occasion, however, I found the musical results fully convincing. It is not easy to conduct this complex score and maestro Boder has probably offered his best reading yet at Liceu.

Lulu was performed by French soprano Patricia Petibon who is fast becoming a specialist in this complex character. Having been a part of this production since its premiere in Geneva, she knows her way around it. She seems very comfortable with the character, both as a singer and as an actress. An consummate actress and a commanding presence she navigates the difficulties of the score with great ease. All things considered—her lithe figure and fiery red hair not least among them—she can be considered the best Lulu that can be seen on stage these days.

Most of the rest of the cast was not at the same level. British baritone Ashley Holland was Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper in this first performance, while Michael Volle, who was hailed for his performances vis-à-vis Petibon in this year’s Salzburg Lulu, is scheduled to sing the rest of the run. Ashley Holland is a capable baritone, but his voice rather too short for him to shine in the role.

Paul Groves was once more Alwa and I found him significantly tighter than last time at Teatro Real. Julia Juon was fine as the Countess Gesswitz; a better actress than a singer and at her best in the final scene. Veteran Franz Grundheber was again outstanding as Schigolch, and he remains a true reference in the role. The rest of the cast neither disappointed nor delighted.


José Mª Irurzun

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