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Lulu (WNO - Birmingham)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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I'll confess that I wasn't especially enthused by the prospect of an evening in the company of Alban Berg's femme fatale: my one previous experience of the opera had been via a production that piled so many additional layers of intertextuality and arcane symbolism onto this already enigmatic opera that it was impossible to see the proverbial wood for the trees. I needn't have worried: David Pountney's new production for WNO somehow manages to present this dauntingly complex work with the utmost clarity without smoothing out any of its maddening, compelling ambivalence. Yes, there are surreal dimensions: characters sporadically don animal-heads (this seems to have become A Thing in recent twentieth-century opera productions, but here it's entirely in keeping with the circus-like atmosphere which pervades the opera); the Painter's studio is dominated by dismembered female limbs (a prefiguration of Lulu's fate at the hands of The Ripper, among other things), and Lulu's former husbands hang from the cage-like set on meat-hooks...But it's impossible to do this work justice without a generous helping of weirdness, and nothing ever seems extraneous or contrived (we did spend the first interval pondering on why the Ring-Master at the opening was styled as Wagner's Wanderer, but that added to the fun!)

Lulu makes huge demands on virtually every singer in the cast, with most singers doubling or even tripling up as the various characters who come into the heroine's life: Patricia Orr's gauche-but-game Schoolboy, Peter Hoare's lyrical Alwa and Jonathan Summers's wheezily repulsive Schigolch stood out, though each individual performance was vocally and dramatically superb: But despite the mind-boggling gallery of grotesques who surround her, the opera stands or falls on enigmatic eponymous heroine, a role which makes other operatic Fallen Women look like a walk in the park: sopranos without serious vocal and physical agility, a rock-solid upper extension and a fantastic figure (not to mention the chops to memorise Berg's tortuous vocal lines and prolix, frequently surreal text) simply need not apply. The Swedish soprano Marie Arnet was near-ideal in every respect, singing tirelessly throughout the long evening: some occluded diction and one or two slightly off-piste moments at the very top of the voice were a small price to pay for diamantine tone that glittered like her sequinned costumes, and a broader palette of vocal colour than is often the case with such high-lying voices. Physically, too, she embodied Lulu's uncannily blank allure to perfection (her observation that she 'has no soul', for instance, was delivered without melodrama or self-pity, but with a laconic listlessness as repellent as it was magnetic) as well as her chameleon-like ability to epitomise any fantasy for any man (or woman) who crosses her path.

I'd heard great things about Ashley Holland as the (anti?)-heroine's shadowy nemesis Dr Schon, but Tuesday evening saw him unwell and replaced by Paul Carey Jones, taking on this formidable role for the first time: younger and slighter of build and voice than his predecessor, he's only moved into heavier repertoire (including Scarpia and the Father in Hansel und Gretel) comparatively recently, but his eleventh-hour performance was a tour de force on all counts. His voice is relatively slim but has such focus and blade that it can slice through anything, and his physical presence invested the character with a lithe menace rather than the heavy thuggishness which is more usual in the role (My companion did point out that he looked conspicuously younger than his own son, Alwa, but familial relationships are so ambiguous in this opera that it scarcely matters!). The other real stand-out performance comes from Natasha Petrinsky as the Countess Geschwitz, gut-wrenching in her abject adoration of Lulu and in her final, fiendishly high liebestod. What a voice: I'd love to hear it in Wagner.

Even with Emmanuel Kloke's comparatively compact third act, Lulu is a long evening - but this production's so masterly that all the chatter in the bar was about how quickly the time was passing. And the WNO orchestra play out of their boots for Lothar Koenigs, who brings out all the hybrid complexity of the score: MGM-style schmaltz, smoky cabaret sleaze, silent-film melodrama are all pitch-perfect. Be warned, though: the final Ripper-Street-esque ten minutes are genuinely terrifying - it must be the first time I've come back from the opera and slept with the light on.

Katherine Cooper


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