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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lulu (1928-35), libretto by the composer after Wedekind
Lulu (soprano) – Laura Aikin
Countess Geschwitz (mezzo) – Cornelia Kallisch
Medical Specialist (baritone) – Peter Keller
Painter (tenor) – Steve Davislim
Dr.Schön (baritone) – Alfred Muff
Alwa (tenor) – Peter Straka
Schigolch (baritone) – Guido Gotzen
Animal Trainer/Acrobat (bass-baritone) – Rolf Haunstein
Prince/Manservant (tenor) – Martin Zysett
Orchestra of Zürich Opera House/Franz Welser-Möst
Directed for the stage by Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Directed for TV by Thomas Grimm
Recorded live at the Zürich Opera House, November 2002
Special feature – ‘Lulu – A Lethal Victim’
TDK DV-OPLULU [164 minutes]

Lulu – Christine Schäfer
Countess Geschwitz – Kathryn Harries
Wardrobe mistress/ Groom/Schoolboy – Patricia Bardon
Stage Manager/Banker/Professor/Medical Specialist – Jonathan Veira
Painter – Staphan Drakulich
Dr.Schön/Jack the Ripper – Wolfgang Schöne
Alwa – David Kuebler
Schigolch – Norman Bailey
Animal Trainer/Acrobat – Donald Maxwell
Prince/Manservant/Marquis – Neil Jenkins
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Directed for the stage by Graham Vick
Directed for TV by Humphrey Burton
Recorded live at Glyndebourne Festival Theatre, 1996
NVC ARTS 0630-15533-2 [183 minutes]

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Sex, murder, suicide, prostitution, lesbianism, financial scandal - Lulu has it all and more. As a symbol of political corruption and the decadence of upper class Viennese society between the wars, it has few artistic equals. As a night in the theatre, it is both harrowing and draining, which is exactly as it should be.

The two stage directors here, Graham Vick and Sven-Eric Bechtolf, obviously view this opera very differently. Bechtolf’s Zürich staging is by far the most interventionist, and therefore controversial. As the accompanying documentary makes clear, he sees Lulu as a victim at all stages, beginning with child abuse (made abundantly obvious in aspects of the staging) and going on through her ‘career’ with men who use her shamelessly. For Vick, she is an innocent who gazes on as events unfold, powerless to help her own tragic circumstances.

Both are entirely valid views. Buyers should note that the Zürich producers opted for the incomplete version of the score (their house gave the world premiere in this form in 1937), which may put some people off. The Cerha completion has gained a firm foothold in most productions today, including this Glyndebourne one, and Vick shows that it does work as a satisfying whole, even though some may quibble at ‘inauthentic’ Berg being used at the end. It is certainly more appropriate than Bechtolf’s solution. In earlier days singers would mime to fragments of Berg’s music, but Bechtolf has decided to use his own film sequence to show us Lulu’s fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. It is a non-too-subtle depiction of slaughter, with a huge carving knife slicing into lumps of raw meat, and I for one prefer the (now) more usual theatrical ending, disturbing enough in its own right.

Bechtolf uses the same jerky, black-and-white Expressionist cinema style throughout the production, including all the interludes. This could become annoying on repeated viewings, and is no way to get round the tricky problem of what to do with those orchestral interludes. He has decided we should see a potted resume of the previous scene (not really necessary) whereas Vick, ever the theatre man, simply lets us view the scene change (stage hands and all) and then patiently waits the few seconds for the new scene to unfold. This is all, of course, because of a preference for open stages these days (Berg’s instructions are to the second regarding when the curtain should fall and rise again) but Vick’s solution is much more integrated.

Bechtolf is somewhat obsessed with the idea of child abuse, and his version of the famous silent film sequence shows us this in some prurient detail. He also incorporates it into the scene where Schön tells Lulu of her early days and how he ‘rescued’ her. We see on stage a young girl, dressed like a doll in leotard, clinging on to Schön’s legs and being dragged round the stage. The message is rammed home loud and clear, and is not in keeping with Berg’s directions. To be sure, many commentators have read this sort of Freudian psychological background into the opera, but I don’t like a stage director disregarding the composer’s wishes to incorporate a particularly controversial aspect of his or her own.

In contrast, Vick does exactly what Berg asks for in the silent film sequence. We witness Lulu’s arrest and imprisonment for Schön’s murder, and it is obvious from the music Berg provides for this scene that this is what is meant to be.

Musically things are more evenly divided. I have been a great admirer of Christine Schäfer’s since her marvellous Strauss/Mozart disc with Abbado, and this role suits her talents to perfection. She looks the part (one can imagine men killing for her) yet shows true vulnerability. Vocally she is superb, with Berg’s cruelly angular lines and exposed coloratura holding no terrors for her. Laura Aikin is also excellent, having performed this part to increasing acclaim, most recently at the Bastille Opera. Her voice is silky smooth, if not quite as alluring as Schäfer’s, and she is not afraid to do all that Bechtolf asks of her, including wearing a see-through body stocking for most of Act 1. It’s a very convincing central portrayal, but harder to judge objectively because of the nature of the production.

Honours are fairly evenly divided elsewhere, apart from the other major part of Schön. Here, Glyndebourne’s aptly named Wolfgang Schöne shows far greater depth of characterisation and is vocally stronger. He must have real stage presence to make us believe how he has controlled Lulu all these years. Veteran Alfred Muff is much blander for Zürich, looking too old and going through the motions too easily to be convincing. The two Countesses are excellent, but Glyndebourne’s Norman Bailey easily wins out with his experience in the role of the old soak Schigolch (injecting some much-needed, and surely intentional, humour along the way) and Donald Maxwell is wonderfully oily and repulsive in the dual role of Animal Trainer and Acrobat.

In the pit, the two stage approaches are mirrored in the orchestral contributions. Welser-Möst conducts a lean, no-nonsense account that partners the revisionist, post-modern production. Andrew Davis gives us a ripe, full-on Romantic reading, which in the last analysis is more satisfying. His conducting is helped by the spacious, resonant acoustic of the new Glyndebourne auditorium, and with sumptuous sound quality, this Lulu is as good to listen to as it is to watch.

It will be pretty clear by now which of these two DVDs I consider most suitable for the library shelf. Graham Vick may not have set the opera world alight with revealing insight, but he is largely faithful to Berg’s instructions, and with a superbly balanced cast and the LPO in the pit, we are unlikely to do much better than this. My only gripe concerns the packaging. Having just moaned about NVC’s release of the Covent Garden Die Fledermaus, this is no better. It is obviously their policy to not give booklets, have fewer cueing points than most, and give their pathetically scant information in one paragraph on the box. With a plot as complex as Lulu, this is not good enough. TDK are certainly to be preferred here, with excellent notes on opera and production, as well as the half-hour documentary that gives useful insight into the director’s approach.

Still, at the end of the day, NVC do give us a three-hour opera on one disc; by any standards good value. Given the quality of the end product, there won’t be too many causes for complaint.

Tony Haywood

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