07 Jun 2009
A shockingly different Lulu at the Royal Opera House, London
The buzz was right — this new Lulu at the Royal Opera House, London is shockingly different. Christof Loy's production is what minimalism should be.
Wigmore Hall has announced the 25 young singer and pianist duos from around the world who have been shortlisted for this prestigious competition, which takes place at Wigmore Hall in September with the generous support of the Kohn Foundation. Details were announced on 27 April during a recital by Milan Siljanov, who won top prize in the 2015 Competition.
Garsington Opera's thrilling new commission for the 2017 Season, Silver Birch, will feature over 180 participants from the local community aged 8-80, including students from primary and secondary schools, members of the local military community, student Foley artists under the guidance of Pinewood Studios and members of Wycombe Women’s Aid.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
The buzz was right — this new Lulu at the Royal Opera House, London is shockingly different. Christof Loy's production is what minimalism should be.
Pared down to essentials, all attention is on the music. The stage is almost empty, no props, no furnishings. At first you think, why stage this at all, then? Why not just a concert performance? But gradually it dawns that the “empty” space isn’t empty at all but inhabited by the music, uncompromising and unadorned. That’s why it’s so disturbing. Without décor to cushion the narrative, it’s impossible to escape.
The word “concept” is sneered at in our anti-intellectual world, but without intellect we are no more than beasts. Berg was an extremely conceptual composer. Lulu is constructed like a complex maze, with mathematical symmetries and interrelationships. Berg was obsessed by secret codes and numerology, with patterns and images shifting as if in a kaleidoscope. Berg is doing much more than telling a story in sound. He’s creating a whole new concept, where ideas are expressed through abstraction. He’s not literal, so this very non-literal production reveals just how radical his ideas could be.
The stage is bare but for a wall of glass. Like the glass, Lulu is opaque, impenetrable. Like Lulu, the glass takes on whatever role is projected onto it, whether the scene takes place in a mansion, prison or slum. The glass is Lulu’s mirror image. No wonder there’s no need for a painted portrait. The glass is staring us in the face.
Although the designs look sleek and sophisticated, danger lurks beneath the surface. Twice the narrative is interrupted by news of a revolution in Paris. Then the Third Act takes place in Paris. Everything’s askew like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari where you don’t know who the madman is, doctor or patient. So there’s no film sequence in this production. It “is” the essence of film, and of the opera, and it’s even in black and white.
Jennifer Larmore as Countess Geschwitz and Agneta Eichenholz as Lulu
The Caligari reference is relevant for throughout this opera people are becoming what they are not, pretending to be someone else, reappearing in different forms. It’s in the music too, with its intricate constructions. So the Professor of Medicine sits with his back to the audience as Lulu fools around with the painter, has his heart attack then rises discreetly from the dead and walks off to become theatre manager and banker. The Painter doesn’t have to commit suicide “convincingly” because he comes back as The Negro. Berg isn’t being naturalistic, he’s playing games of patterns and subterfuge. If Loy’s production is confusing, that’s because the opera is about confusion.
This is not “Lulu for Beginners”, though, conversely, if it’s taken entirely on its own terms, without assumptions of what opera “should” be, it might even be easier to grasp the concept of Lulu as a musical puzzle The first time I saw Lulu was 1978 - the original of the 3 act version - and was so shocked by the passive anti-drama of Lulu’s personality that I didn’t realize that this was exactly what Berg wanted to do. Here, Loy has taken away the obvious signposts to narrative, so we’re forced, like Lulu, to be constantly alert, always aware that things may not be what they seem, and be prepared to shift and adjust. We are drawn into the jungle of shadowy dangers: hence the references to Africa (unknown territory), to snakes and predatory men. It’s a far deeper insight into Lulu’s background than the basic assumption that she was abused as a child. Loy’s implication is that the whole world’s a place where people are forced to play tricks to survive, like the Animal Trainer’s charges.
No doubt there’ll be huge opposition to this Lulu but it’s one that will keep generating ideas for a long time to come. Spartan as it is, each detail is significant. For example, when Dr Schön embraces Lulu, his arms go round her, but his palms are stretched outward. When he starts to disintegrate emotionally in Act Two, there’s a smudge of greasepaint on one side of his face. Lulu had worn such makeup when she was a dancer, and he is a man about to marry someone else. Now he’s the vulnerable one. These details are fleeting, easily missed and may mean different things, so repeated visits to this Lulu are in order.
A scene from Lulu
Indeed, the full impact of this production may not emerge until long after it’s over. Since coming away from it, I’ve been thinking about Berg’s obsessive sense of order. If the world is in perpetual, confusing chaos, then compulsive orderliness is a means of staving off danger. Berg’s symmetries and palindromes aren’t simply pattern making but a kind of secret incantation. Was he on the verge of something really radical when he died? We shall never know but it’s stimulating to wonder.
Agneta Eichenholz as Lulu and Michael Volle as Dr Schön
Because this production throws so much emphasis on the music, it’s quite a surprise at first how soft edged the orchestra sounded. Because Boulez is so exceptional, I have to adjust to anyone else. In rehearsals, Antonio Pappano has emphasized the Viennese aspects of this opera, and its submerged romanticism. Submerged, like Lulu’s tragedy. Despite the violence in this opera, it’s tender and dignified. So I can see where the soft focus is coming from. It acts like a counterbalance to the stark sharpness of the staging: Boulez conducting a production like this would be almost too intense to bear.
Agneta Eichenholz was Lulu. She’s quite experienced though mainly in Sweden, which is perhaps appropriate for a Lulu, whose background is unknown. A First Night at Covent Garden was perhaps the highest profile she’s ever had, so if she sounded tense, it’s completely understandable.. It’s a difficult part to sing, and to some extent shrillness fits in with the character. She doesn’t quite have the hypnotizing presence of Christine Schäfer, but it really is asking too much of anyone to expect such standards.
Michael Volle’s Dr Schön is a benchmark realization, all the more impressive because it’s his first time in the role, though he sang Wozzeck only a few months ago. This is Dr Schön’s tragedy as much as Lulu’s. He’s a man who showed compassion when he took Lulu off the streets, even if he may have got something back for doing so. Lulu clearly loves him, though she’s incapable of giving him the same kindness. Because Volle’s Dr Schön looks vigorous and in his prime, his disintegration is all the more distressing. He embodies Berg’s theme of control and chaos: an authoritative, powerful voice but the actorly skills to transit from magnate to tortured soul.
Paradoxically - Lulu is full of paradoxes - the most unrealistic scene in the opera occurs when Countess Geschwitz and Lulu swap clothes and personalities. That couldn’t happen in real life but in Loy’s production the two women really do look alike. Jennifer Larmore’s Countess Geschwitz is also a far more sympathetic portrayal than the butch Cruella DeVille some assume gay people must be. Berg’s sister Smagarda was lesbian, so he knew they were people just like anyone else. Again, this production captures the essence of the opera by not giving the game away with obvious clues. You have to concentrate when Larmore and Eichenholz aren’t singing to keep track of which is which.
Sturdy performances from Klaus Florian Vogt as Alwa and Peter Rose as the Animal Trainer/Athlete. Schigolch, though, might have needed greater definition. Unlike the other characters, he stays the same. He’s the animal who can’t be tamed, and a counter to Lulu herself, so more should have been made of the role. Gywnne Howell sang well, but the wild edge to the part wasn’t present.
Get to this production. Chances are it won’t be seen too often as it’s hardly box office candy. Some ladies sitting near me were day trippers from the country on a package tour of the capital. They must have wondered what hit them.