Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lulu (with act 3 realisation by Friedrich Cerha) (1925-34)
Agneta Eichenholtz (soprano) - Lulu; Michael Volle (bass) - Dr Schön; Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor) - Alwa; Jennifer Larmore (mezzo) - Countess Geschwitz; Gwynne Howell (bass) - Schigolsch; Peter Rose (bass) - Animal Trainer/Athlete; Philip Langridge (tenor) - Prince/Manservant/Marquis; Heather Schipp (mezzo) - Dresser/Schoolboy/Groom; Will Hartmann (tenor) - Painter/Policeman/Negro; Jeremy White (bass) - Professor of Medicine/Theatre Manager/Banker/Professor; Kostas Smoriginas (bass-baritone) - Journalist; Vuyani Mlinde (bass) - Manservant; Monika-Evelin Liiv (mezzo) - Gallery Owner; Frances McCafferty (mezzo) - Mother; Simona Mihai (soprano) - 18-year old girl
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 13, 17 June 2009. NTSC

Pappano says of the production that it enables us to concentrate on these “very strange and disturbed people” in the interview tacked on to the second disc. The stage action is indeed set in high relief by the stark yet compelling sets. This is all prepared on DVD, in fact, by the eerie silence of the opening titles. Out of black screen emerges the ascending fourths that themselves announce the Prologue. Everything is in black and white. The generally simple, black and white sets tend to emphasize the emotions on stage - the meeting of Geschwitz (the beautifully toned Jennifer Larmore) and Lulu in Act 2 Scene 1 positively smoulders, for example. The Animal-Trainer (Peter Rose) is less obviously obsessed with his subject than Gerd Nienstedt for Boulez. Both Lulu's and August's faces are deliberately blanked out of emotion. As Lulu shoots Schön, the curtain has descended by about two thirds - the feeling is claustrophobic, as if the world is pressing in on all concerned - and on Lulu in particular. There is no film for the Filmmusik, unfortunately. Instead, the murdered Schön gets up and walks off stage, then the characters position themselves for the next scene.
The grim, empty stage that serves for the London scene (act 3 scene 2) accentuates the hopelessness of Lulu's situation. Lulu's portrait - allegedly brought by Geschwitz - is non-existent; rather the characters gather in a circular spotlight against the back of the stage for this moment. After Lulu's death, Larmore (Geschwitz) once more enters that spotlight as she sings Geschwitz's magnificently lyrical love song to her beloved.
There is no furniture for the first scene. Men are dressed in suits, Alwa in a near dress-duplicate of his father. The static, single-colour background also serves to throw attention on every gesture of each character. Again, at the onset of Act 3, enigma is all - as the orchestra tunes, silhouettes mingle in front of a light blue background; it turns out that this is how the vital, ruinous drop in Jungfrau shares is set, later, towards the end of the first scene of Act 3. Alwa is sung by Klaus-Florian Vogt, who excels in enacting the hormone-driven young man. The imitations between the voices of Alwa and Lulu - the gap between statements of their theme become ever close as the seduction progresses - are expertly managed, as is orchestrally the sensual entrance of the saxophone.
The 'beggar' who rings the doorbell and interrupts Alwa and Lulu's impending coitus is the enigmatic Schigolsch (Gwynne Howell). Their duet - which begins in a single, stationary, blue-white spotlight - is superbly managed, with a fine sense of continuing sexual undercurrent. Enter the rather more buttoned-up Dr Schön (Michael Volle). Volle is in magnificent voice, and makes, in the final act, a truly creepy Jack the Ripper. Yet it is the spoken climax of the scene, wherein Lulu declares her worldly debt to Schön, that carries the most emotional weight here. Will Hartmann, as the painter driven to suicide, is persuasive as a besotted victim of Lulu's charms.
Eichenholz's Lulu seems to grow in power until by the end of act 1, her systematic destruction of Schön is both no surprise and concurrently a virtuoso display of her power over men. Eichenholz has the ability to sing the most disjunct lines with the most wonderfully convincing cantabile - she'd make a great interpreter of the Webern songs. She has power, too - as when she states her freedom in the final section of Act 2.
Jennifer Larmore's Geschwitz, although a smaller part, matches Lulu in terms of expertise and intensity. She comes into her own in the final act, cuddling Lulu gently while the latter bargains with Jack the Ripper to stay the night.
Good to see Philip Langridge here, as always the model of eloquence and sophistication, as behind frosted glass we see Lulu have a fainting fit. As the Marquis in Act 3, he is the epitome of slime as he threatens to turn Lulu in to the police. The smaller roles are uniformly well taken. Heather Schipp especially impresses as Dresser/Schoolboy/Groom - she's a very street-wise-dressed schoolboy, by the way.
Pappano paces the moments of drama - the Medical Doctor's fatal heart attack, for instance - very well. A pity Jeremy White's heart-attack is so obviously hammed up, especially when thrown into direct contrast to Alwa's reaction: his hesitant “Herr Medizin - Herr Medizinalrat ...”. He realizes the yearning lyricism that shoots through the core of the score, and moments such as Alwa's cry to the dead Doctor to “Wach auf” (Wake up) are heart-rending. Pappano also makes aural sense of the score's most complex moments which, in lesser hands, usually sound simply ragged, yet he also honours the intense Romanticism of the orchestral interlude in Act 1 (between Scenes 2 and 3). Act 3 is the real headache for any conductor, with huge amounts going on at various points. Pappano is not baulked in the slightest. There is real immediacy here, too, not least at the moment of Lulu's death, where an orchestral Urschrei of truly earth-shattering power is unleashed .
Pappano's “extra” is a short almost didactic film in which Pappano lucidly illustrates Berg's techniques (including note rows). Pappano sits at the piano - which he uses frequently to illustrate his points - but short excerpts from the opera itself are also inserted. This is a lucid, easily followable discourse on Berg's techniques. Pappano states that Berg “found a freedom that Schoenberg never found”. Agneta Eichenholz's interview is fascinating. She is remarkably eloquent in English and talks of how she learned the part in a year. She isolates the “rhythm” as the hard part rather than the more obvious difficulty, the terrifyingly high tessitura Berg sometimes demands. Her main goal is to act the part, then to sing it, she says. Lulu is “a little bit of every woman”. Eichenholz also points to the sets - they “make you feel naked” and highlight the interpersonal relationships onstage, particularly Lulu's with Dr Schön. She has learned that “Lulu is weak and strong at the same time, and that's OK”.
A fascinating set, one that is truly thought-provoking and stimulating.
Colin Clarke
A fascinating set, one that is truly thought-provoking and stimulating.