2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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John Allison (from August 2015)


One of the contradictions of Alban Berg\'s great masterpiece Lulu is that the opera is almost too long for keeping alive an audience\'s sustained interest, and at the same time almost too short for being so crammed with radically condensed action and an abundance of verbal and musical detail. It takes a rare combination of conductor and director to resolve this, and in many respects the new Dutch National Opera production (seen on June 14) achieved an ideal balance thanks to the work of Lothar Zagrosek in the pit and William Kentridge on stage. Zagrosek had the advantage of this being Amsterdam\'s annual production with the peerless Concertgebouw Orchestra, and he drew playing of warmth and diaphanous beauty-though never for beauty\'s sake, of course. The orchestra brought a rare degree of sensuality to this score, and with it a more than usually complete fulfilment of the vision Berg had in mind: ‘Only through an understanding of the sensual,\' he said, ‘can one arrive at a true idea of the human psyche\'. Zagrosek\'s conducting was wonderfully fluid, yet grounded in a total grasp of the work\'s symmetries, which become ever clearer in Friedrich Cerha\'s shaping-up of Act 3.

It is typical of Kentridge, one of the most sought-after names in the contemporary art world, that he should have added a few layers to what is already a multi-layered work. But this staging (a co-production with the Met and ENO) showed that Lulu is surprisingly well suited to his busy, artwork-in-motion style, since a comic-strip directness of action is one of the qualities the opera inherited from the pair of Wedekind plays on which it is based. On the surface, Lulu might not have been such an obvious choice for the South African artist-director, whose trademarks have previously included the transplantation of European classics into African landscapes, and who in his operatic work has managed to explore such preoccupations as colonialism (Die Zauberflöte) and revolution (The Nose). Kentridge doesn\'t seize on the racial otherness of the Negro, or play up the libretto\'s passing references to Africa, but then the work is in some ways apolitical, unless you count its representation of the Banker\'s ‘screw them before they screw you\' philosophy. Yet Lulu does allow Kentridge\'s long-standing interest in German Expressionism to find fulfilment, and the production represents a synthesis of much of his technique-the ‘drawings for projection\', expanded to stage-filling proportions-and style to date.

Kentridge\'s vision for the piece requires a large creative team, all kept busy: Luc de Wit (co-direction), Catherine Meyburgh (video), Sabine Theunissen (sets), Greta Goiris (costumes) and Urs Schönebaum (lighting). Two extras-resembling characters straight out of Beckmann-are perhaps unnecessary distractions, especially the one who mimes playing an onstage piano and dances with sheets of music in the interludes. The artist himself is a visible presence in some of the early scenes, but the staging is less autobiographical than often in Kentridge\'s output. The crucial Film Music interlude finds a director who is instinctively comfortable with the medium, and it is fitting of course that the opening scene takes place in a painter\'s studio, where sketchy drawings are pinned onto the blank canvas of Lulu\'s dress. The skewed and sloping stage is filled with wonderful decorative detail-for example, the art deco bed whose parallel lines seem to echo the thick tiger\'s whiskers in the drawings of the Prologue\'s menagerie. Costumes suggest the period of composition (the Schoolboy wears a quasi-fascist uniform) even if the sets define no locale, and though Kentridge is still perhaps overusing such well-trodden devices as newsprint collage, it all adds up to a production as virtuosic as anything he has done.

But is it the production\'s fault or that of the soprano Mojca Erdmann that Lulu herself is not compellingly central enough? Is that blank-canvas aspect-which allows men to not just project their fantasies, but here actually pin them, onto her-deliberate? It\'s one way of reading the character, at least in the first half of the opera, and on the positive side, this Lulu\'s plain, wide-eyed, femme non-fatale personality avoids the problem of those productions that turn the audience into complicit voyeurs. But this amoral character-three husbands dead in the first three scenes-has to be ruthless and fascinating, and Erdmann lacks the vocal equipment for that. In a part that really requires a coloratura-cum-dramatic-soprano, her voice is accurate but without personality-not to mention power-at the top. She leaves a void that is generally well filled, not least by Jennifer Larmore\'s warm-toned Geschwitz. Johan Reuter gives what feels like a strong performance as Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper, yet ultimately one lacking in variation. Daniel Brenna is a lyrically personable Alwa, and the excellent William Burden manages to be touching as the Painter/Negro. The veteran Franz Grundheber brings gravelly power to Schigolch, and Rebecca Jo Loeb\'s strongly-sung Schoolboy makes the role-Berg\'s Cherubino or Octavian?-feel bigger than usual. These performances show what Ernst Krenek meant when he wrote with astonished admiration of how his friend Berg ‘could live for years in intimate mental contact with this repulsive crew of shady derelicts and desperate clowns and crooks and care with unflagging dedication for their musical well-being\'.  


Cabbells April 2020 rectangle
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