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.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
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.