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Berg, Lulu: Soloists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 4.6.2009 (MB)

Lulu – Agneta Eichenholz
Countess Geschwitz – Jennifer Larmore
Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper – Michael Volle
Alwa – Klaus Florian Vogt
Schigolch – Gwynne Howell
Animal Trainer/Rodrigo – Peter Rose
Dresser/Gymnast/Groom – Heather Shipp
Prince/Manservant/Marquis – Philip Langridge
Mother – Frances McCafferty
Painter/Negro – Will Hartmann
Professor of Medicine – Jeremy White
Fifteen-year old girl – Simona Mihai
Lady Artist – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Journalist – Kostas Smoriginas
Manservant – Vuyani Mlinde

Christof Loy (director)
Herbert Murauer (designs)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Thomas Wilhelm (movement)

Agneta Eichenhoz as Lulu and Michael Volle as Dr. Schön

Good news is in short supply for the Royal Opera’s new production of Lulu, but there was some. First, there actually is a new production of Lulu, the sole previous example (Götz Friedrich/Colin Davis) having been presented in 1981, revived once in 1983. (The two-act, pre-Cerha version was never staged at Covent Garden: extraordinary, until one considers what else has not been, whilst the neglected Tosca returns every season.)

Moreover, much of the singing was very good. Michael Volle scored another triumph with his role debut – remarkably, only Will Hartmann had sung his part before – as Dr Schön. Thoughtful, musical, as real a character as the production would allow him to be: this was a first-class performance. Hartmann impressed just as much and for just the same reasons, plus his honeyed tone, in his roles, especially the Painter. Klaus Florian Vogt made a welcome house debut as Alwa and exhibited the virtues we have come to know from his Walther and his Lohengrin. If perhaps too blank a canvas in the first act, this might well have been a response to direction; in any case, his desperation during the chilling final scene of the second act was moving indeed. Gwynne Howell simply was Schigolch: always a role to be relished, as here. I was put in mind of Norman Bailey. Jennifer Larmore was a more feminine Geschwitz than one often hears, beautifully sung, though not so strong, so differentiated a character as might be the case. Again, this qualification might at least partially be ascribed to the production. Peter Rose sang well, though he makes a physically unfortunate Athlete, unless, as did not seem to be the case, irony were intended. Philip Langridge offered carefully etched portrayals of his three roles, insofar as the production, etc., etc.

Jennifer Larmore as Countesd Geschwitz

And then, of course, there was Agneta Eichenholz’s Lulu. Often impressive in vocal terms, though she struggled on a few occasions with the extraordinary difficulties of Berg’s writing, Eichenholz failed to exert the animal magnetism the role truly demands. Christine Schäfer, amongst others, has offered a portrayal so compelling as to leave this in the shade, and sadly, one cannot put out of one’s mind other singers in a role such as this. Even in a revisionist portrayal, it is not enough to be primarily a victim: Lulu is far more interesting than that. I suspect, however, that Eichenholz might grow into the role.

If the central role was a little underplayed, how much more so was the orchestra. In itself there was little to complain of in the orchestral playing; indeed, many woodwind and brass players truly shone. Antonio Pappano, however, showed once again that, whatever his abilities in the Italian repertoire, they are not paralleled in his conducting of German music. As so often in his Wagner, Pappano failed to weld the momentary into a greater structure, although there were perhaps less of the stop-start frustrations than in much of his Ring. Much of the score, especially during the first act, sounded tentative, unsure of where it was going or just diffident, as if the conductor were concerned to keep the orchestra down in favour of the singers. Some listeners apparently approve of such ‘considerate’ conducting but it underplays the labyrinthine complexity of Berg’s score, which here, extraordinarily, often sounded rather thin. Balancing Berg’s lines is here, as in his Op.6 Orchestral Pieces, a daunting task; it is not achieved by over-simplification of the textures, which in no way equates to Boulez’s famed clarity. There were, admittedly, audible reminiscences of Mahlerian dance rhythms, but they lacked bite and they lacked formal integration. Lulu makes enormous demands upon a conductor, just as it does upon a soprano. But there are several conductors who would be more suited to this task, so why not ask them? Boulez would doubtless have been impossible to persuade; likewise, I fear that we shall only be able to dream what a Lulu from Claudio Abbado or Bernard Haitink might have sounded like. Yet imagine what a storm might have been unleashed in the pit by Michael Gielen, Sir Simon Rattle, Zubin Mehta, or Christoph von Dohnányi. Sir Andrew Davis presented an excellent account at Glyndebourne. Ingo Metzmacher would have been another obvious choice. In a head-to-head contest at Covent Garden, Daniel Harding showed himself to have a far greater aptitude for Wozzeck than Pappano. I shall resist the urge to go on, but surely a Music Director should be more attuned to his strengths and weaknesses.

I invoked the production repeatedly when referring to the singers, so I ought now to explain. This was not quite a non-production but it was a non-scenic production, bar an irritating glass screen. Christof Loy calls this minimalism but I am not at all sure that it is appropriate for Lulu. True, some of the acting is well directed, and one notices it especially because there is nothing else at which to look. The æsthetic seems to remain realistic; there is no Robert Wilson-style artificiality. True, the production makes one concentrate on the score, which might have had considerable justification in a performance more strongly conducted, since again there is little else to detain one’s attention. Yet one could say that of a concert performance. The parallelism of the characters and to a certain extent that of the situations, was clear, given the lack of any particularity for any scene; again, one could say the same of a concert performance. Yet whilst the locations might not be of overriding importance, differentiation does matter. Without prior knowledge of the work, I cannot imagine a member of the audience being anything other than confused. Who were these people? Where were they and why were there? How had bourgeois society contributed to their predicament? Even a sparing depiction of some aspects of that society would have helped. Abstraction – and I realise that abstraction is not quite the same thing as such ‘minimalism’ – seems more or less the only path to follow in Tristan; it seems appropriate for a number of mythological works; it does not, however, follow that it will work in everything. I have admired a number of examples of Loy’s work before, most recently his Munich production of Henze’s The Bassarids. However, the director’s claim in the programme that ‘for me, the school of reductionism is a school of keen-eyed observation that focuses in part on the psychology of the characters and in part on their universal timelessness,’ seems to miss an important point. Works are different and not all of them will respond equally well to the demands of the same ‘school’. Time and place, not even necessarily those of the composer’s own vision, matter in Lulu.

I find myself, then, unable to offer more than a single cheer. The opportunity, at least in this country, to see Berg’s wonderful second opera is simply too rare for it not to be worth attending. However, a more appropriate choice of conductor and a more appropriate production could have made this so much more than a mixed blessing.

Mark Berry

Pictures © Clive Barda

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