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American Lulu (Young Vic)

Berg's Lulu Austro-American-style. But this opera by Olga Neuwirth is less a new work than a re-work.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Like an inventor exploited by men in suits, the true begetter of American Lulu is forgotten amid weighty credits for this "new interpretation of Alban Berg's opera Lulu by Olga Neuwirth, co-produced by The Opera Group, Scottish Opera, Bregenzer Festspiele and the Young Vic in association with the London Sinfonietta". And that's the problem.

American Lulu at the Young Vic
The original ‘Lulu plays' by Frank Wedekind (for it is he) are edgy and chaotic. The author of Spring Awakening wrote morality dramas for the Expressionist age that depict the degeneration of society through greed and lust. The emblematic nature of Lulu herself is clear from the plays' titles alone: Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box. A neutral figure in more ways than one, she is a creature of instinct upon whom primal desires are visited but whose allure brings catastrophe in its wake.

In filleting and seasoning Berg's opera to suit her own palate Neuwirth honours Wedekind rather less than she did David Lynch when she adapted his film Lost Highway some years back. Since her programme note shows that she misunderstands the whole point of the central character, this comes as no surprise; for a composer who is "puzzled" that Lulu is always seen through the eyes of men clearly hasn't grasped the nature of parable.

The 100 minutes of American Lulu comprise a montage taken from the first two acts of Berg's opera Lulu followed by a largely home-made finale in which characters bicker aimlessly in exchanges of cringing banality ("We are perfect for each other."/"Yeah. Perfect for sex.").

Neuwirth's avowed intention to refocus the drama onto the protagonist gets nowhere, for while she successfully diminishes the opera's men, her attempt to locate a psychological drive within Lulu herself fails utterly. The orchestrations, well played by the London Sinfonietta under Gerry Cornelius, sporadically make way for unsubtle bursts of Martin Luther King's speeches and snatches of We Shall Overcome.

The production, by the team that did such a fine job on Weill's Street Scene recently, is classy and sharp. In front of a stage design by Magda Willi that seems consciously (and aptly) to channel the bandstand set for Chicago, ubiquitous video artist Finn Ross fills spaghetti-strand curtains with his customary brand of imaginative projections – although an unfortunate comic-book rape scene falls with a thud.

Director John Fulljames draws on his Brecht handbook and places Lulu's changing room onstage under lights, a welcome decision that flies in the face of Neuwirth's wishes by taking the character back to both Wedekind's and Berg's intentions for her. In another example of Verfremdungseffekt, jazz specialist Jacqui Dankworth uses a microphone to declaim her attenuated role as Lulu's long-suffering lover.

Fulljames draws vividly delineated performances from Robert Winslade Anderson, Jonathan Stoughton and Simon Wilding, while Paul Curievici and Paul Reeves excel in a variety of roles. Only the veteran baritone Donald Maxwell grates a little, overstated both in his acting and his voice.

And so to Angel Blue. The Californian soprano who enthralled audiences at ENO's most recent revival of La bohème has it all: beauty, grace, dynamic stage presence and a gorgeous, creamy soprano that remains crystal-clear across its range. I confess to being utterly captivated by this evocatively-named singer; but is she Lulu? Wedekind's, for sure. Berg's, undoubtedly. Neuwirth's, for the reasons above, probably not.