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Alban Berg: Lulu (with Act III completed by Friedrich Cerha)
24 Aug 2010

Lulu at Covent Garden

One of the leading lights of Berg’s Vienna was the architect Adolf Loos, the great crusader against ornament.

Alban Berg: Lulu (with Act III completed by Friedrich Cerha)

Lulu:Agneta Eichenholz; Dr. Schön / Jack the Ripper: Michael Volle; Alwa: Klaus Florian Vogt; Countess Geschwitz: Jennifer Larmore; Schigolch: Gwynne Howell; Animal Trainer / Athlete: Peter Rose; Prince / Manservant / Marquis: Philip Langridge; Dresser / Schoolboy / Groom: Heather Shipp; Painter / Policeman / Negro: Will Hartmann; Banker / Professor: Jeremy White. Royal Opera House Orchestra. Antonio Pappano, conductor. Christof Loy, stage director. Herbert Murauer, designs. Eva-Mareike Uhlig, costume co-designer. Reinhard Traub, lighting designer. Thomas Wilhelm, movement director. Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, June 2009.

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But even Loos might have thought Christof Loy’s Covent Garden production of Berg’s Lulu a bit under-ornamented: there is no stage set except a blank greenish screen, divided into panels, sometimes Rothko-ized by white floorlights. Maybe you’ve seen the television weatherman when the chroma-key fails, and instead of standing in front of a map inflected with numbers and diagrams, he’s just standing in front of a green or blue screen: that’s the basic visual effect of this production. The props—a chair, a razor, a gun—are so scanty that a Beckett play seems a Zeffirellian extravaganza by comparison.

Instead of going backstage, the characters may simply turn their backs to the screen; in moments of unusual passion, they may simple plant themselves four-square and face the audience, as if they were dummies in a vitrine. A certain aesthetic of puppet theatre can be found throughout, particularly in the case of Agneta Eichenholz, the Lulu, who often makes a sudden crooked smile, as if a string tugged up one side of her face, and who sometimes makes spineless disjointed gestures; when she (visibly, behind the screen) collapses in a faint in act 1, scene 3, you feel that her limb-strings were suddenly cut. She’s not a marionette in the Kleistian sense, a creature of superhuman inanimate grace; instead she’s a puppet in the Chucky sense, slightly ghastly even when not actually killing anybody. Nothing she does has even the faintest tinge of the erotic, even when she’s massaging Schigolch’s groin in act 3, scene 1; instead the Fatal Attraction she exerts on everyone seems an absurd plot contrivance, like the love potion in Tristan. At certain moments her behavior is more animal-like than puppet-like, as when she licks the blood off Dr. Schön’s fingers and cheeks; but she does even this icky thing in an almost completely flat, affectless manner.

Sometimes she seems to convert the other characters into puppets as well. The Medizinalrat first dies, then picks himself up and walks offstage, scattering banknotes in his wake; reincarnated for the second time as Lulu’s first client in act 3, scene 2, he repeats the money-gesture, with perfectly mechanical aplomb. Then the Painter appears as Lulu’s second client, the African Prince, his throat still cut and bleeding. In act 1, scene 3, Lulu daubs Dr. Schön’s face with heavy white makeup and lipstick, a gesture of triumph as she compels him to write the letter breaking up with his fiancée; and all throughout act 2 he will continue to wear the clown face, as if permanently demoted from the human race.

The singing and conducting are of the utmost magnificence: Eichenholz remains lyrical, controlled, unshrill, even during her cruelly high Lied; Michael Volle’s Dr. Schön is strong and secure, eloquently anguished—an Amfortas to the Parsifal of Klaus Florian Vogt, a surprisingly delicate, deft, cantabile Alwa. All of the minor characters deserve praise, but I will mention only the blustering bravura of Peter Rose’s Athlete (and Animal Trainer), and the blasé insinuation of Philip Langridge’s Marquis—Langridge is the only tenor I ever saw who could make Don Ottavio a figure so dangerous that Don Giovanni seemed to have something to worry about, and that skill at menace serves him well in this role.

Daniel Albright


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