Not seen at this address in over twenty years, this opening performance of Christoph Loy’s new production of Lulu (shared with Madrid) is only the 12th by the Royal Opera. Berg’s second operatic masterpiece unfortunately doesn’t emulate the success that music director Antonio Pappano had with Keith Warner’s production of Wozzeck, which has already been revived.
While Pappano’s and his orchestra’s contribution are definitely worth hearing – they achieve a luminescence with Berg’s intricate score that is both intensely musical and utterly secure – the production on stage is both bare and confusing. Apart from the occasional sight of what looks like an old-style wooden school chair, designer Herbert Murauer has stripped away everything but a white flooring backed by a moveable wall of eight frosted glass panels.
Onto this Loy and his movement director Thomas Wilhelm move the cast for the most part rather aimlessly, in their dress-suited or cocktail-dressed anonymity. For anyone coming to the opera for the first time, even with recourse to the synopsis, would probably find it impossible to follow.
While newcomer, Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz looks terrific whether in her black or white cocktail numbers and copes pretty successfully with Berg’s requirements, the production gives her no context within which to develop a character. Yes, of course, she should be different to every man – or woman in the case of Jennifer Larmore’s Countess – who falls for her, as if she has no personality at all except for what each projects on to her. Here Loy gives her no character to start with, so why would anyone be inveigled by her in the first place?
If that piece of the jigsaw doesn’t fit into place, the rest just doesn’t add up – so how to explain her growing collection of husbands and cadavers, until her own grisly end? Berg’s intricate plotting of singers in multiple roles returning with the same themes but opposite personalities – Michael Volle’s Dr Schön and Jack the Ripper; Philip Langridge’s innocent and misguided Prince, and detestable, exploitative Marquis etc – were lost in the vacuity of the direction. Bleached of all colour (save for Schön’s blood when shot), it was like a drunken chess game on a board that had lost its black squares.
All Pappano’s hard work in the pit was dissipated on stage, leaving me hankering after Graham Vick’s 1996 Glyndebourne production (available on DVD) and Richard Jones’ colourful 2002 ENO production (recorded by Chandos in its Opera in English series when revived in 2005), starring Christine Schäfer and Lisa Saffer respectively. What was missing in Loy’s production was both humour (albeit gallows humour) and the film – accompanied by Berg’s extraordinary palindromic score halfway through the second act. The use of amplification for speech added incongruous balances when Berg intercuts speech with singing too.
So if you’re listening on Radio 3 you will undoubtedly discover the strengths of the enterprise. Given that most of the cast, for most of the time, were in concert dress this would have worked better as a concert performance. Like the crash of Jungfrau shares that is the focus of the first scene of Cerha’s completed third act, Loy’s production lost all its value all-too quickly; leaving the audience – and the opera – hopelessly out of pocket.