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Olga Neuwirth [Photo by Harald Fronzeck]
24 Sep 2013

Olga Neuwirth, American Lulu

I was a little taken aback by the reaction I received upon mentioning that I was looking forward to seeing American Lulu.

Olga Neuwirth, American Lulu

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Olga Neuwirth [Photo by Harald Fronzeck]


One friend, perfectly reasonably, said that he had not taken to it when he had seen it in Berlin; I wish I had had the chance to press him more on why. However, he did suggest that the staging — presumably at the Komische Oper premiere — may have been a considerable part of the problem. Others, though, seemed to recoil at the very idea. Who did Olga Neuwirth think she was, adapting Berg’s opera into her own? For once, I almost felt myself the voice of reason, then stopped short when I recalled that to have been the title of an especially nasty right-wing newspaper column. At any rate, I had no a priori objection to what sounded as though it were simply the continuation of practices that dated back as long as any conception of the musical work, and indeed beyond. I have always preferred the Second Viennese School arrangements of Johann Strauss to the ‘originals’; Mozart’s Handel reworkings, whether in terms of arrangement or more thoroughgoing recomposition have long fascinated me; and as for Bach, whether his rewriting of other music, sometimes his own, sometimes that of others, or the multitude of rewritings, in whatever form, offered by composers from Mozart to George Benjamin... They vary wildly in quality, of course, and that seemed to me the only point; the question was not whether Neuwirth had any ‘right’ to adapt Berg’s opera, but whether it worked.

I think it did, or at least much of it did. I cede to no one in my love for Lulu — save, perhaps to one of Neuwirth’s teachers, Luigi Nono, who described it as one of the two greatest operas of the twentieth century, the other being Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand. I know Berg’s score — and Friedrich Cerha’s completion — pretty well, and found myself not annoyed, but fascinated by the interplay between Berg and Neuwirth. In a work that lasts about half the time of the original, Neuwirth adapts, including reorchestration, the first two acts, and writes her own third act, both text and music. (English translations, concerning which, I found some more convincing than others, were provided by Richard Stokes and Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon in the first two acts, and Kerkhoff-Saxon alone in the third.) One might miss the gorgeous post-Romantic labyrinthine depth of Berg, but to hear his music refracted as it was, pointed in a different direction by a new(-ish) story held its own interest — just as, say, Berio’s work on composers as different as Boccherini, Purcell, and Schubert has. (If only he had lived to complete his realisation of L’incoronazione di Poppea...) And so, with Berg’s — admittedly, selectively employed — jazz-influenced scoring in mind, Neuwirth’s reorchestration and composition alike make their move to New Orleans via a wind-dominated ensemble, Berg’s voluptuous strings put in their place and perhaps now heard through Brecht-Weill. (No one, I hasten to add, is saying that Berg is ‘improved upon’; that is not the point.) I was less sure about the introduction of more popular music ‘proper’, especially Eleanor’s blues music, into the score; its inclusion, presumably intentionally so, seemed oddly uncritical, as if, in a curious inversion or at least evasion of Adorno, Berg’s opera requires subjection to criticism but that of an allegedly purer popular culture does not. And yet, as I shall come to describe, there is a dialectical twist that would at least partially assist in that regard. The new version of the film music — what a relief it was actually to see a film, practically the only moment in present-day staging of opera where film seems to be eschewed — is brought to us, like the ‘jazz band’ music via a recording of a Wonder Morton organ: evocative, contemporaneous, and yet also, rightly for a new work, somewhat oblique in its relationship to the ‘original’.

The third act of Lulu, which Neuwirth, wrongly to my mind yet perhaps nevertheless fruitfully, regards as ‘unsatisfactory’ — ‘after great trials and tribulations, two women are simply slaughtered by a serial killer; and that is that’ — becomes instead ‘an unresolved murder case’, but more to the point here, offers her own music, clearly flowing from that of Berg, still more from that of Berg-Neuwirth, and yet which quite properly takes on a life of its own: a twenty-first-century reimagination of post-expresssionist music. There are vocal leaps; there is vocal seduction; there is a hard-edged, yet sinuous quality, in line with Berg’s own. I should need to hear it again to say much more; yet, to answer the earlier question, for the most part, and bearing in mind my cavil concerning the blues music in particular, I think it worked.

I deliberately started with the music but ought to say something briefly about the new setting. Instead of the Prologue, we start at the end, in 1970s New York, when Clarence (Schigolch) asks Lulu why, when she is now so wealthy, she is no more satisfied, prompting her to look back at her life, beginning in 1950s New Orleans. A photographer with whom she is living is soon supplanted by Dr Bloom, purchaser of the pictures; Lulu dances in Bloom’s club, music written for her by his son, Jimmy. (I do not need in laboured fashion to point out who is who with respect to Berg; it is perfectly clear, though some of Berg’s intricate parallelism falls by the wayside as Neuwirth’s drama takes on a different trajectory.) Initially I found the substitution of Eleanor, a singer, for Geschwitz, something of a disappointment. The ‘otherness’ — if I am honest, banality — of her music, however well sung by Jacqui Dankworth, seemed too obvious, too lacking in integrative or indeed disintegrative power. However, and I hope this was not merely a product of my fevered imagination, there is criticism, if not so much of her music, then of the hippyish psycho-babble in which her reproaches — she is by the third act a successful singer, though still hurt by Lulu’s prior rejection — are couched. She too, it seems, is capable of exploitative behaviour. As indeed are we all, and some of it, like Neuwirth’s, may even be construed positively. We should not fall for bogus notions of the ‘jargon of authenticity’. Meanwhile, all the while, the drama is punctuated by reminders of the Civil Rights Movement: words from Dr King, and sounds, in Eleanor’s final song, of ‘We shall overcome’. It is certainly not subtle, and it is perhaps all too easy to say ‘that is the point,’ but its contribution was nevertheless greater than to make us appreciate more fully the balancing-act between existential and social — far too often tilted in favour of the former — in Berg’s opera. (Should we consider American Lulu in reference to Berg’s work, or as a work in itself? That depends, of course, on who ‘we’ are. Either we know the original or we do not, but a question that permits neither of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as a ‘straight’ answer is a good question for Neuwirth to be asking audiences, steeped in the self-righteous delusions of Werktreue.)

This was a co-production by The Opera Group, the Young Vic, Scottish Opera, and the Bregenz Festival, in association with the London Sinfonietta. The latter was on excellent form throughout, splendidly guided, insofar as one could tell from an initial hearing, by Gerry Cornelius. I was certainly as gripped by the orchestral performance as by the puzzles and challenges of Neuwirth’s work itself. John Fulljames makes a great deal from relatively little on the small stage of the Young Vic. Video was used sparingly but to great effect, Finn Ross’s work employing characters from the stage greatly appreciated, as mentioned above. The uncomfortable voyeurism of having Lulu change on stage, taking her clothes from a wardrobe and almost defying us not to watch, has one’s mind working, as it should, in different directions: self-interrogation, heightened by the (Brechtian?) presence onstage behind a see-through curtain of the orchestra. Construction of reality, perception of what may or may not be epic, is not simply our own task, but it is so at least in part, as in Lulu’s mind.

Angel Blue offered a charismatic assumption of the title role. It is of course far shorter than Berg’s, but has different challenges, the slipping between speech, parlando, and glorious, if all-too-brief (deliberately so?), passages in which the voice may truly soar a case of ongoing reinvention. Her stage presence, just as in ENO’s recent Bohème, was scintillating. In this opera, more than Berg’s, the other cast members are lesser beings, but there was much to enjoy from their various contributions. Paul Curievici, for instance, furthered the strong impression he recently made in The Importance of Being Earnest, and Donald Maxwell continued to hold the stage even at what must be approaching the twilight of his career.

Emma Woodvine, credited as ‘dialect coach’ seemed to have done a good job. I still wonder about the practice, though, of having assumed accents, be they from the South or elsewhere. It seems curiously selective; for instance, when we have a performance of Carmen, whether in French or in translation, we do not usually hear the dialogue — or, for that matter, the vocal lines — delivered in the tones of Seville. Better, I think, to let actors, including singing actors, act than to have them turn impressionists. (That runs both ways, of course; those complaining, as sometimes they do, about American or other accents in English dialogue should probably find better things to do with their time.) No matter; it is a minor point, indeed more of a question. And a great strength of this evening was the questioning that it provoked.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Lulu: Angel Blue; Clarence: Robert Winslade Anderson; Dr Bloom: Donald Maxwell; Jimmy: Jonathan Stoughton; Eleanor: Jacqui Dankworth; Photographer, Young Man: Paul Curievici; Athlete: Simon Wilding; Professor, Banker, Police Commissioner: Paul Reeves. Director: John Fulljames; Designer: Magda Willi; Lighting: Guy Hoare; Video: Finn Ross; Sound: Carolyn Downing; London Sinfonietta/ Gerry Cornelius (conductor). Young Vic Theatre, London, Saturday 14 September 2013

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