Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 5th March, 2013
Welsh National Opera bring Alban Berg’s unfinished opera to startling life in this stylish and colourful production that somehow manages to accentuate the grubbiness of the subject matter.
This is the tale of Lulu, a woman who is like catnip for men. Around her, men drop like flies – some to their knees in supplication, some from heart attacks, suicide or murder. But despite or perhaps because of her chequered past, the men keep coming. Through it all, Lulu is indifferent, taking what she can get, knowing her power over these weak creatures.
Marie Arnet is sublime as glamorous, free spirit Lulu. There is an ambiguity to the character: is she predator, prey or parasite? Immoral or amoral? My view of her shifted with each scandalous event in the plot but Arnet remains unassailable. Lulu’s ‘availability’ keeps her apart.
As ever with WNO, the ensemble is excellent. I was impressed by Paul Carey Jones’s Dr Schön but found his Jack the Ripper compelling. Mark Le Brocq’s Artist is great fun but for me, the belle of this ball is Natascha Petrinsky as Countess Geschwitz, the lesbian lover Lulu shamelessly exploits with tragic consequences. Her anguish and devotion are in direct contrast to Lulu’s cold indifference and opportunism. Geschwitz is the most human of these bizarre characters – perhaps that was seen as shocking at the time, that we should have most sympathy for a ‘deviant’.
David Pountney directs the piece as a surreal circus, a carnival of animal-headed, dinner-jacketed creatures. There is no attempt at naturalism – this is all about keeping us at a distance from the characters. We are to weigh Lulu’s conduct, and society’s conduct, from an emotional detachment. The absence of melody in Berg’s atonal score helps with this. There are some lovely touches. When dead, the men are replaced by life-sized effigies of themselves that are hauled up into the air, suspended over the rest of the action. They are literally ‘hung up’ over Lulu. The set (by Johan Engels) is a circus ring of tall ladders, a cage for the menagerie of characters, with a spiral staircase at its centre that can be covered with a gauze for reveals of the more shocking moments. As she goes from man to man, Lulu’s outfits are colour-coded: gown, shoes and even hair all match. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costume designs are sharp, clean and striking, both stylish and stylised, providing a unity to the look of the piece – although I must admit the schoolboy clad entirely in white made me think of the ghost of wee Jimmy Krankie. But only for a moment.
The Verfremdungseffekte keep us detached but this also works to make the final scene, the brutal murder of our heroine at the hands of the Ripper all the more powerful and shocking. Lulu’s bleeding body is thrown against the gauze with a splat, and she stays there, naked, revealed, an object and ultimately, a victim.
The impact of the final scene remained with me as I left the theatre, defining the whole piece. It’s a challenging listen – I’m more of a bel canto boy at heart – but this sumptuous and inventive production rewards the effort.