Opera Reviews
20 March 2019
Untitled Document
Be prepared to be ensnared
by Colin Anderson
Berg: Lulu
The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
4 June 2009

Photo: Clive BardaThe Royal Opera has only ever produced Alban Berg's opera Lulu (to his own libretto based on two plays by Frank Wedekind - Erdgeist and Die Büsche der Pandora) in the three-act version that required Friedrich Cerha to realise Act III (the whole being first produced in Paris in 1979). The completed version reached Covent Garden in 1981, and then 1983 - Colin Davis conducting - and has not been seen since in this House. In its return now, The Royal Opera has struck gold.

There are numerous reasons for this success. Antonio Pappano's conducting seems a labour of love yet without losing the long line of each act and the work as a whole, stressing the humanity and characterisation of Berg's music while lucidly sounding its complexity and drawing an assured response from the orchestra of the Royal Opera House. When the music is at its most expressive, the heart is touched, yet there is nothing consciously beautiful, for tense undercurrents and sleazy manipulation make their mark, too. If there is one doubt - and an important one - it is when Lulu (now in London as a prostitute) meets Jack the Ripper as one of her clients. When he stabs her (offstage), her cries lack the ultimate in terror - the most graphic music of the opera (by Berg, not Cerha) is not quite as stomach-churning as it should be - it's another event rather than the event.

Other than that, nothing but praise for Pappano - clearly conducting Lulu because he has a deep rapport with Berg's music. So too Agneta Eichenholz. Her assumption of Lulu (her debut in the role and also at the Royal Opera) is remarkably convincing; she also has Berg's cruelly demanding writing within her technical capabilities, the stratospheric requirements requiring coloratura but without the showiness (everything in this score is music!). Eichenholz's portrayal gives us a Lulu to be attracted to (potentially we are all her victims), to take pity on, and, sometimes, to despise. In looks, demeanour and actions, Eichenholz - given her acting skills and her mastery of the musical line - might just be a definitive Lulu. She must return to The Royal Opera!

Photo: Clive BardaShe is part of a stellar cast, one that the first-night audience somewhat underestimated, given the lukewarm applause that greeted Gwynne Howell (Schigolch) and Philip Langridge (Prince/
Manservant/Marquis), although cheers did ring out for Eichenholz and Pappano, and for Michael Volle who is commanding as Dr Schön and Jack the Ripper. Jennifer Larmore is Countess Geschwitz, the one who gives most to Lulu and, conversely, loses the most, and the rest of the cast is excellent in their vividness, interaction, taking their particular moments and then remaining a presence when off the main acting area - all suggesting that rehearsals were particularly positive and bonding; one for all…

Quite why some in the audience booed producer Christof Loy is a mystery. Presumably because of the minimal set. There may not be much to look at - but that surely is the point. We are dealing with timeless characters and situations (and the ears have much to work on with the music alone - a genuine masterpiece), thus the unspecific staging and the formal business-like costumes allow the eyes to not be distracted and the mind can be absorbed by the unfolding story (however distasteful at times) and be faced by reality while fully appreciating the music on its own terms as well as its power to suggest, comment and enhance. This simple/complex axis works wonderfully well.

As played here Lulu, the opera, is an emotional and musical roller-coaster. Lulu, the person, is perhaps firstly a victim, and is definitely one at the close, and she certainly has her victims, so - warning! - be prepared to be ensnared.

Photos: © Clive Barda
Text: © Colin Anderson
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