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Manchester music reviews

Lulu, Welsh National Opera

Lulu by Welsh National Opera

Reviewed by Denis Joe Feruary 2013

“She was created to incite to sin, to lure, seduce, poison—yea, murder, in a manner no man knows.”   (Frank Wedekind)

Lulu is seen by many as one of the greatest operas of the 20th Century (if not the greatest). Left unfinished by the untimely death of Alban Berg, the opera was performed incomplete by the Zurich Opera in 1937. It wasn’t until 1979 that the world premiere of the three act Lulu, completed by the renowned composer and musicologist, Friedrich Cerha, was performed at the at the Opera Garnier, conducted by Pierre Boulezi.


For this production WNO have used a third version of Lulu, by the German born musicologist Eberhard Kloke allowing performers a freer hand in shaping scenes and dramatic developments. But Kloke does not deviate very far from Cerha’s approach. This was the UK premier of Kloke’s version.


When the curtain is raised we are transported into a world that instantly brings to mind the vision of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But this is not the monochrome, doom-ladened version, but a colourful circus, with monkeys and crocodiles dressed in sharp colours. A ring master (Richard Angas) invites the us to see some wild animals, the wildest of all being the "serpent" Lulu (Hereinspaziert in die Menagerie). We will soon see how she snares people, precipitating immoral deeds (Sie ward geschaffen, Unheil anzustiften,/Zu locken, zu verführen, zu vergiften-/Und zu morden - ohne das es einer spürt)’.


Act One takes us to a painter’s studio, where Lulu (from the outset the incredibly sexy, Marie Arnet), the wife of Dr. Goll, an elderly Medical Professor, is having her portrait painted. The sitting is watched over by her lover, Dr. Schön, an editor in chief who rescued her from the gutter as a child. They are interrupted by Alwa, Schön’s playwright son (Darf ich eintreten?) who, having invited Lulu to a performance of his play - with a cynical judgemental remark concerning the whereabouts of her husband (Aber wo ist der Herr Gemahl?) leaves with his father.


The painter (Mark Le Brocq) tries to seduce Lulu and she wards him off, demanding that he continues painting. He asks her to lift her skirt (Wenn Sie links das Höschen ein wenig höher...) and further attempts to seduce her. She caustically dismisses his advances by telling him he is too slow to catch her (Sie bekommen mich noch lange nicht). But she faints and the painter bolts the door. Then goes to Lulu and kisses her, telling her how much he loves her.


They are interrupted by Dr Goll, banging on the door and demanding to be let in. Lulu panics and pleads with the painter to hide her (Er schlägt mich tot). Goll breaks down the door and seeing the two alone, he collapses and dies of a heart attack. Lulu realises how rich she will be on Goll’s inheritance. The painter is horrified (Hast du denn keine Seele?), he tells Lulu to put on her clothes, then kneels over the body and delivers a moving aria, saying how jealous he is of the husband and how much he fears good fortune (Ich möchte tauschen mit dir, du Toter! Ich geb' sie dir /Zurück). There follows a short orchestral interlude, during which the Doctor’s body is removed by stagehands and hoisted on a hook above the stage. Lulu re-enters and asks the painter to fasten the back of her dress and the both leave the stage.


In scene two Lulu and the artist (Whose name we learn: Walter) are married. Sitting in a comfortable room, they are interrupted by a caller at the door, who turns out to be Schigolch, an old derelict who is somehow part of Lulu's past. The painter leaves the two alone and Schigolch asks Lulu for money, complementing her on her good fortune (Du hast es weit gebracht! Die Teppiche...).


Schön arrives and assumes the departing Schigolch to be Lulu’s father. He has come to ask her to get out of his life (Ich bitte dich, deine Besuche bei mir einzustellen). Lulu tries to calm Schön by telling him that Walter is too infatuated to know that she is having an affair. Schön is concerned that he is about to marry and wants no scandal. Lulu assures him that her life belongs to him in a powerful and beautiful aria (Wenn ich einem Menschen auf dieser Welt angehöre,/gehöre ich Ihnen. Ohne Sie wäre ich - ich will/nicht sagen, wo), which gives us a glimpse of Lulu as dependant, and suggests a level of desperation, that seems to contradict the image of the liberated woman. Here we can see the influence of Wagner’s ideal of the purity of love, as is the basis for Tristan and Isolde. We could assume that Lulu feels a debt of gratitude towards Schön, but her final line of this aria (Welt hat je etwas für mich übrig gehabt?) suggests that she values Schön for the love he showed her.


LuluSome tend to see the role of Lulu as a portrayal of the classic (and clichéd?) femme fataleii. Wedekind, whose dramas Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box are the basis of the opera Lulu, created a certain ambivalence to how we should view Lulu. This aria suggests that Lulu is not narcissistic or even the piteous victim, but someone who is, as in the characters of Wagner’s opera, driven by her love for one man.


When the Painter comes in, Lulu leaves him to learn some facts of life from Schön. Schön explains that he has known Lulu since she was twelve and has tried to get her out of his life. Now, he says, the Painter must assert himself and make Lulu behave like a respectable wife (Laß sie Autorität fühlen; sie verlangt nicht mehr,/als unbedingt Gehorsam leisten zu dürfen).


Shocked, Walter locks himself in another room when Lulu appears, followed by Alwa, who is excited over the news that revolution had broken out in Paris. But Schön quiets him and is concerned for Walter. The three break down the door and discover that the Painter has killed himself. Alwa berates his father for his lack of fidelity (Hättest du, als meine Mutter starb, an dem Mädchen /anständig gehandelt!). Schön calls the police, and Lulu predicts he will end up marrying her (Sie heiraten mich ja doch! - Nur Geduld, Kinder!). Walter’s corpse is removed and hoisted above the stage.


Scene three takes us backstage in a theatre, Alwa is pouring champagne for Lulu and telling how he first met her (Sie trugen ein dunkelblaues Kleid.- Ich sah etwas/so unendlich hoch über mir Stehendes in Ihnen), shortly before his mother's death, and how he wanted his father to marry her so she would always be around. An African Prince appears after Lulu leaves for her next cue; he is hoping to marry her (Als Gattin wird sie einen Mann über alles glücklich/machen.Als meine Gattin...). Onstage Lulu has pretended to faint after seeing Schön in the audience with his fiancée. Schön promptly appears in her dressing room, ordering her back onstage. Alwa tells the theatre director to go on with the next number, then leaves Schön with Lulu, who delivers an ultimatum: he must renounce his fiancée for her. She dictates the letter ("Nehmen Sie Ihr Wort zurück."/"Ich kann es mit meinem Gewissen"...), which Schön calls his death sentence. As the bell rings for her next number, Lulu calmly goes onstage.


In Act Two we find Lulu, now married to Schön, saying good-bye to a visitor, the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, who admires her. As the two women leave the room, Schön is irrational with jealousy of real and imagined rivals, and bemoans the degradation of his final years of life (Das mein Lebensabend. Die Pest im Haus. Dreißig!/Jahre Arbeit, und das mein Familienkreis). Complaining that she feels neglected, Lulu entices him into their bedroom.


Geschwitz returns and hides as several other hangers-on appear: Schigolch and an Athlete, who is carrying a Schoolboy. They wait for Lulu, who comes in to make small talk with them. Schigolch denies he is Lulu's father, and says she is a Wunderkind (Sie hat nie einen gehabt!). A servant announces Dr. Schön, so the Athlete and Schoolboy hide, but it turns out to be Alwa. Schön who is watching from a distance as Lulu and Alwa converse. Alwa declares his love for Lulu (Mit deinen Gottesgaben macht man seine Umgebung/zu Verbrechern, ohne sich's träumen zu lassen), though she murmurs she poisoned his mother. Schön appears and escorts his son out of the room, then returns to look for the Athlete, who he knows is hiding. He is carrying a revolver, which he gives Lulu, telling her to use it on herself because of the shame she has brought both of them (Ich muß mich retten. Begreifst du reich?/Du sollst es dir selbst applizieren!). Trying to calm him, Lulu calls herself blameless for whatever others may have done on her account; Schön turns the pistol in her hand toward Lulu and seems about to pull the trigger. When he is distracted by the emergence of the frightened Schoolboy from hiding, Lulu empties the revolver into Schön's back. The wounded man calls for water, but champagne is all she can find. He warns Alwa that he is her next victim (Laß sie nicht entkommen: Du bist der nächste). Seeing Geschwitz, Schön dies. Though Lulu begs Alwa to let her escape, he bars her way until the police arrive. Schön's body is taken by stagehands and hoisted above the stage along with Dr. Goll’s and Walter’s corpses.


This scene has all the makings of classic opera buffo yet there is nothing comical about it. In that sense it brings to mind Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and whilst the scenes in that do not lead to the tragedy we find in Lulu, the deception (a common ploy of opera buffo) that we find in Mozart’s opera has a very cruel streak running through it.


There is a musical interlude that traces Lulu's trial, conviction, imprisonment, and eventual escape, and we find ourselves in the same setting, approximately a year later. Alwa, Geschwitz and the Athlete planning Lulu's escape, wait for Schigolch who brings passports, then leaves with Geschwitz to rescue Lulu from prison. The Athlete, planning a marriage of convenience to Lulu, complains about the work and money he has put into her escape plans (Meine Vermögensverhältnisse sind auch zerrüttet).


The Schoolboy appears, having run away from reform school to convince him that Lulu is dead, the Athlete shows a clipping that says she was hospitalized in prison with cholera, then throws him out. Lulu, leaning on Schigolch, appears wearing Geschwitz' clothes, her escape disguise. Angry at finding her wasted by illness, the Athlete threatens to go to the police. He leaves, as does Schigolch, who has to pick up train tickets. Geschwitz has traded places with Lulu in prison in order to get her out; Lulu tells Alwa how Geschwitz infected herself, with cholera allowing Lulu to escape. She asks Alwa for a kiss, to be sure he will protect and accompany her. Though she remarks that they are lying on the sofa on which his father died. Alwa is unperturbed by Lulu’s wasted features, in fact it seems to excite him as he runs his hands over her body (Durch dieses Kleid empfinde ich deinen Wuchs wie /Musik. Diese Knöchel:- ein Grazioso; dieses reizende /Anschwellen: ein Cantabile; diese Knie: ein Misterioso; und das gewaltige Andante der Wollust).


Lulu by the Welsh National OperaLulu and Alwa have escaped to Paris and are hosting a gambling party, where people are discussing the booming market in Jungfrau Railway stock. A Marquis, knowing Lulu is wanted for murder by the German police, blackmails her, intending to sell her to a brothel in Cairo. Lulu protests she cannot sell herself: the only thing that is truly hers. Ich tauge nicht für diesen Beruf. Als ich fünfzehn  is one of the most beautiful and heart rending moments in any opera I have seen. Lulu sings of her self-realisation that she discovered during her time in the prison hospital. It is a magnificent aria, that fully brings out the humanism of Berg’s masterpieceiii. This is, perhaps the greatest moment in this opera that has so many great moments. Marie Arnet sang the piece better than I have ever heard it and showed herself to be an outstanding actress as well as a powerful singer.


The couple are interrupted by people returning from the gaming tables, and as Lulu reads a note from the Athlete, threatening to inform on her unless she pays a large amount, the guests talk about their good luck at gambling. When the Athlete reappears, she says that her money is gone; he replies that she and Alwa still own Jungfrau Railway shares, and he gives her until the following evening to produce the money. As he moves away, a telegram arrives for the Banker; the market in Jungfrau shares has crashed.


Schigolch appears and Lulu informs him of her predicament; he offers to push the Athlete out the window if Lulu can arrange for the latter to come to his apartment that evening. The Athlete has been bothering Countess Geschwitz offering his services as a gigolo, Lulu says that she can get him to Schigolch's place under the pretence of meeting with the countess. As Schigolch and Lulu step out, the Athlete reappears and is questioned by the Marquis, who senses a competitor in his extortion scheme. Lulu re-enters to tell the Athlete that Geschwitz is waiting for him at a certain address; the countess, she adds, has promised to pay her for arranging the meeting, and this is the only way Lulu can get money for him. He agrees and Lulu calls Geschwitz to say that for her sake Geschwitz must submit to the Athlete, who reappears to escort her out. Lulu then arranges to change clothes with a young man who is about to be married. The gamblers come in and the Banker reveals the worthlessness of the Jungfrau shares he has been offered in payment. Shaken by their losses, they leave. Lulu tells Alwa that the police are on their way and leads him out the servants' entrance as they arrive and discover that "Lulu" is the Groom in her clothes.


Lulu, Alwa and Schigolch escape to London, where Lulu has been forced into prostitution. Schigolch hustles Alwa out of the room when Lulu returns with her first client, a professor afraid of being discovered. Next to arrive is the faithful Geschwitz, who has salvaged Lulu's portrait. Alwa, briefly inspired by the sight of Lulu's former beauty, hangs it on the wall, where the others join in admiring it. Lulu goes to find another client and returns with the Black Man, who says his father is emperor of an African country. Refusing to pay in advance, he tries to take Lulu by force and deals Alwa a fatal blow when the latter tries to restrain him.


Lulu returns with a third client, she tells him Geschwitz is her crazy sister. The client haggles over the price and is about to leave, but Lulu, feeling a desperate need for him, settles for less. As they go into her room, Geschwitz resolves to return to Germany and find a new life working for women's rights. Lulu's death shriek is heard, and when Geschwitz frantically tries to open the door, the murderer: Jack the Ripper; stabs her as well, then looks in irritation for a towel with which to wipe the blood from his hands. As he leaves, the dying Geschwitz murmurs that she will be near Lulu in death (Lulu! Mein Engel!/Laß dich noch einmal sehn!/Ich bin dir nah! Bleibe dir nah!/In Ewigkeit!).


Welsh national Opera’s production of Lulu surpasses any opera that I have seen live. Everything about this production is perfect. It captures a time when there was a celebration of the degenerate in the Weimar Republic. We can see this in the figure of Macheath in Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper, where we become sympathetic or, at least admiring of a psychopathic murderer. Franz Schreker and Richard Strauss had already laid the ground for a permissive (and at times, degenerate) view of sex and sexuality in their operas. In art  George Grosz portrayed a degenerate view of the Bourgeoisie reflecting the degeneracy of the Weimar Republic as a whole. The Austrian artist Egon Schiele was noted for his portrayals of a twisted humanity. Yet what appears to be a reflection on a degenerating society in Berg’s opera, really drags out the humanity that is capable of rising above that.


In the post-World War One Europe, two figures dominated the musical world: Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Berg, a pupil and disciple of the later, adopted Schoenberg’s approach to the new tonal arrangement that were to revolutionise Western compositional music. Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck, is usually considered to be the first twelve-tone or atonal opera. This is not really a good understanding of it. Berg was composing Wozzeck at the same time that Schoenberg was grappling with the theory of freeing music from the long held tradition of tonality, characterized by a system of tension and release (consider the closing of a classic symphony for example). Much of Wozzeck pre-dates the total concept of the twelve-tone approach and there are many passages within Wozzeck that can only be seen as developing from the tradition of tonality.


Berg never fully embraced the twelve-tone system and I would say that Lulu is the triumphant marriage between the Romanticism of Wagner and the attempt to reflect a world out of tune. He took from Schoenberg the means to successfully achieve that end and in Lulu we see humanity in its dim and in its brightest light. It would be a mistake to see Berg’s work as a compromise between the old and the new. Berg took from each tradition what was necessary to achieve a musical language that has revolutionised opera composition, if not classical music in general.


This production of Lulu surpassed any expectation I had for the opera. The stage set and costumes were perfect in countering the clichéd approach that presents ‘profound’ works in a dark manner. The hauling of the bodies above the stage was a wonderful touch; almost a reminder of what Lulu was, lest we become too sympathetic towards her. The acting was outstanding as was the singing.


Lulu seems to bridge the gap between the the opening aria of Richard Strauss’ Elektra (particularly Elektra’s aria Allein! Weh, ganz allein. Der Vater fort,) and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. The ability to produce such extreme emotion in a musical language not only requires the mind of an exceptional composer but also an orchestra to do it justice and not allow it to descend into farce. To maintain this level of intensity requires an outstanding degree of musicianship and the WNO Orchestra, under the leadership of Lothar Koenigs did not allow the tension to diminish. The level of playing proved that this Orchestra are one of the leading Opera House orchestras in the world. A recording of this production would serve as an outstanding contribution to the opera archive.


But it was Marie Arnet’s portrayal of Lulu that was truly breath-taking. Her soprano tone delivered every emotion in this demanding role. She showed that being sexy could also be made beautiful: no need for red tight fitting dresses, S&M bondage punk style or clownish outfits. This Lulu captures much of the style of the early productions and in doing so it says more about humanity than any ‘up-dating’ can achieve. This is a production that recognises the universal themes of the work and presents the opera to reflect that without the need to falsely show the relevance of the opera for today’s audience.


If we can use the concept of tradition in relation to Lulu then we could say that David Pountney and Welsh National Opera have given us a revolutionary Lulu, in a conventional production. 


i. The recording on Deutsche Grammophon is seen as the definitive recording, with Teresa Stratas in the title role. 
ii e.g.: Farewell to the Femme Fatale: Angela Carter's Rewriting of Frank Wedekind's Lulu Plays. Peter G. Christensen. Marvels & Tales. Vol. 12, No. 2 (1998), pp. 319-336.
iii In the 1929 film Pandora’s Box by the legendary director G. W. Pabst, this moment can easily be seen as mawkish. I think that the music that Berg put to this section of the opera, gave this scene powerful meaning that suggested Lulu as a great operatic heroine.
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