Alban Berg’s opera,Lulu, was left unfinished due to the composer’s tragically early death. He left two acts complete, and sketches (and some fully orchestrated sections) for the third and final act, although these sketches were not fleshed out until the 1970s, after the composer’s widow, Helene, died as she had strictly forbidden the opera being presented in anything but its two-act version.
On her death the composer Friedrich Cerha completed the opera and in 1979 it was performed in its entirety to huge critical acclaim at the Paris Opèra under Pierre Boulez, in a staging by Patrice Chéreau. The subsequent audio recording from those performances remains the benchmark by which all others are judged.
Lulu is complex, demanding and at times obtuse, and any company that attempts a staging of this enigmatic masterpiece has its work cut out as it makes impossible demands of everyone involved. ENO managed to pull it off with director Richard Jones at the helm, but alas the Royal Opera came a cropper as its director, Christof Loy, erased all sense of character and location, reduced all the singers to ciphers and in the process turned this coruscating work into four hours of torpor.
Luckily La Monnaie/De Munt’s staging hits the jackpot. Indeed having suffered the yawnfest of seemingly wall-to-wall McVicar and Pelly in London over the last twelve months, encountering a staging that challenges, questions, probes and illuminates in equal measure was an unalloyed joy from start to finish, for Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski delivers, for me, the finest opera production of the year.
Within Malgorzata Szczesniak’s lavish designs, Warlikowski creates a surreal canvas of diverse imagery which somehow manages to engage all the senses at once. If any criticism could be levelled at the staging it’s that on occasion there’s too much happening at once, but that’s a small niggle, given the overall seriousness of the director’s approach. He and his designers blend acting, singing, video and dance into a coherent whole, and his daring use of ballet pays off brilliantly.
Although he tells the story by using many layers of interwoven imagery, he still manages to make the story understood and his use of dancers from the Koninklijke Ballet School from Antwerp as alter-egos for Lulu is a masterstroke.
Without a top-drawer cast of course the effect of this brilliant staging would probably have been diminished, but it’s hard to imagine the opera better sung or acted than it is here. At its heart lies the remarkable Canadian singing-actress Barbara Hannigan who not only delivers the performance of a lifetime, but eclipses all the previous exponents of Lulu I’ve encountered before. It goes without saying that she looks fabulous in a wide variety of revealing costumes, but for much of the evening she’s moving across the stage en pointe in ballet shoes whilst infusing Berg’s angular vocal lines with warmth and delivering the role with pinpoint accuracy. Her descent from femme fatale at the start to weary prostitute at the close is chartered unerringly, and her demise at the hands of Jack the Ripper is staged ambiguously, as if she’s almost willing her own death. A truly remarkable performance.
The large supporting cast included the always engaging Tom Randle as the Painter and the Negro, Dietrich Henschel as a forthright Dr Schön, and scary Jack the Ripper, Natascha Petrinsky as an uncommonly young and sexy Countess Geschwitz and Charles Workman as a virile Alwa. In the pit Paul Daniel, a replacement for Lothar Koenigs, brings his experience of the work to bear and the orchestra’s playing is without fault, indeed they make the score sound more lyrical and Romantic than I remember. An unforgettable evening.