Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Lulu, Staatsoper Berlin, 9 April 2012

Schiller Theater, Berlin

Images (c) Bernd Uhlig

Lulu – Mojca Erdmann
Countess Geschwitz – Deborah Polaski
Dresser, Gymnast – Anna Lapkovskaja Painter, Negro – Stephan Rügamer
Dr Schön, Jack the Ripper – Michael Volle
Alwa – Thomas Piffka
Athlete – Georg Nigl
Schigolch – Jürgen Linn
Prince, Manservant – Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke
Theatre Manager – Johann Werner Prein
Doctor of Medicine, Professor – Wolfgang Hübsch
Lulu's Doppelgängerin – Blanka Modrá, Liane Oßwald

Andrea Breth (director)
Erich Wonder (set designs)
Moidele Bickel (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Philipp Haupt (video)
David Robert Coleman (‘adaptation’ of the London Scene)
Jens Schroth (dramatic advisor)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Johann Werner Prein (Theatre Manager), Georg Nigl (Athlete), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Prince, or whoever he was supposed to be here...)

I am genuinely at a loss to know where to start with this performance of Lulu, but perhaps a little chronological background would be as good a place as any. Having admired Andrea Breth’s Salzburg production of Eugene Onegin, which he conducted, Daniel Barenboim invited her to direct Wozzeck and Lulu in Berlin. Wozzeck was much admired at last year’s Festtage; I thought highly of it, albeit with a few more reservations than many seem to have felt. It was certainly, however, a good enough production to have me look forward to Berg’s second opera. Except that it was not really Berg’s second opera at all: instead, Breth and Barenboim served up a bowdlerised version, a ‘Berliner Fassung’ for which I cannot imagine anyone had called, and which certainly did not seem to satisfy anyone in the theatre. The Prologue disappears completely, replaced by a horizontal actor’s drawn out reading from Kierkegaard and Lulu’s third-act scream, as does the Paris Scene from the Third Act. This is not a reversion to the old two-act version, though, even if one discounts the bizarre excision of the Prologue, in which the terms of the drama are set up, the whole world a stage or a circus. For the final scene, set in London, has been rewritten, adapted, call it what you will, by one David Robert Coleman, of whom I freely admit that I had never heard before. On the basis of this encounter, I sincerely hope that reunion should be indefinitely postponed. One might be able to take the use of a radio – presumably a recording, though it may just have been a strange acoustic trick – during the first act, but Coleman’s sketchy orchestration sounded more akin to an undergraduate’s first attempt to look through Berg’s manuscripts than a finished ‘version’, let alone a competitor to Friedrich Cerha’s standard completion.

A metaphor for the production?

Why was the latter not used? Presumably permission was refused, not unreasonably, on account of the decision to make cuts. Whose decision? Breth’s? Barenboim’s? The former’s, with the latter’s acquiescence? Why, why, why? It sounded as much a mess as what we saw onstage, of which more anon, despite fine musical performances, of which more anon. Berg’s harmonisation of the hurdy-gurdy Lautenlied is tossed aside in favour of a manifestly inferior version by Wedekind. This is not, of course, simply a matter of an inferior harmonisation, nor indeed of having missed the tune’s first appearance in the excised Paris Scene; dodecaphonic writing and method are completely undermined. This is musical violence from which I am frankly astonished that Barenboim did not recoil. Likewise when it comes to the violence done to Berg’s symmetries, dramatic and musical, is unconscionable; this is not some Italianate number-opera. It is mystifying that one of the truly great musicians of our time, someone who has collaborated closely with Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chéreau, the team that brought us the first ever staging of the ‘complete’ Lulu, and one who has so excelled in the music of the Second Viennese School, should have acquiesced – if indeed, that is what happened. It was, apparently, at Barenboim’s invitation that Coleman put together his ‘version’, steel drums and all – yes, really! an intimation of an early jukebox, we are told – but was the original decision to travesty Berg’s opera made by Breth? Let us assume so, for it is difficult to imagine why someone conducting Lulu for the first time would wish not really to conduct Lulu at all.

Lulu (Mojca Erdmann), Geschwitz (Deborah Polaski)
Insofar as one can establish responsibility from Breth’s production, it seems likely that the idea was hers. She certainly seems to have no interest in Berg’s structures, substituting for them a tedious play of actors and mimed actions. The setting appears to be a cross between a production of a Beckett parody and a 1980s pop video, a grim warehouse with a crashed car and a great deal of scaffolding. (The latter actually provides a degree of relief; I found myself able to imagine in its structures some Bauhaus-like counterpoint to the constructivism, if not the Romanticism, of Berg’s score.) A great deal goes on, but relatively little seems to have anything to do with the opera itself, nor indeed with the ‘characters’ who sing in this production. Instead of a film of Lulu’s trial – why are directors, often so besotted with film, so reluctant to respect this necessary or at least advisable visual counterpoint to Berg’s palindrome? – we simply gaze upon a couple of filmed eyes, maybe Lulu’s, maybe not, whilst someone tips a woman out of a wheelbarrow, puts her back in again, and wheels her off. The sub-Beckett atmosphere is of questionable relevance to Berg, but I could discern no attempt even to make it fit. There is, of course, no change of scenery, despite the clear dramatic necessity to shift from one milieu to another. At the end, there is a minor conflagration, permitting more colour than has otherwise been permitted all evening. Just as with Christof Loy’s dreadful, indeed well-nigh unbearable, ‘minimalist’ production for Covent Garden, I cannot imagine that anyone not already well versed in the opera would have the faintest idea what was going on, or who anybody might be, let alone why one might care. If the idea were to excise supposed misogyny and perhaps other uncomfortably drawn characters – why, incidentally or perhaps not incidentally, is it so difficult to distinguish between attitudes voiced by characters and those voiced by creators? – then all that was achieved was to neuter, indeed almost to obliterate, the drama.

Lulu and Jack the Ripper (Michael Volle)
The truly odd thing about this whole fiasco is that Barenboim conducted what remained of Berg’s score superbly, so much so that one could almost, especially if one knew the score, fill in the gaps. Despite the ruptures, there was a true understanding of both dramatic and musical flow and the generative nature of Berg’s serial writing. Allied to a Staatskapelle Berlin on fine form, its dark, ‘old German’ sound a true joy to hear in this repertoire, one had a frustrating sense of what might have been. Much of the singing impressed too. Mojca Erdmann occasionally struggled, her voice running out of steam at one point until she elected to resume her cruelly high line an octave lower, but for the most part she sang as well as she acted: a credible doll-like approach that permitted all manner of coloratura parallels to be drawn. Michael Volle sang as well as one might have expected, in a role he seems well on the way to be making his own. If occasionally a little wobblier than one often hears in this part, Deborah Polaski’s Geschwitz was a forthright performance. If she did not tug on the heartstrings as one might hope, that was surely more a matter of the production and its cuts than anything else. Thomas Piffka sometimes sounded forced as Alwa, his lines consequently lacking shape, but elsewhere sang well enough. Stephan Rügamer was compelled to perform a very odd caricatured Negro dance, surely more offensive than anything alleged to be found in the opera itself, but nevertheless emerged with credit, as did Georg Nigl’s Athlete, who also had to perform a great deal of shadow-boxing in the background. Jürgen Linn’s Schigolch made surprisingly little impression, but again that may have been at least as much a matter of the production as anything else. The whole lasted about three hours, including one interval.

Again, why, why, why?


Anonymous said...

I saw the premiere and hadn't the faintest idea what was going on, some kind of Beckett parody indeed!

Andrea Berth was booed by the audience, Daniel Barenboim then stood firmly hand in hand beside her, but couldn't stop the booing.

Thanks for the review!
(Leen Roetman, Rotterdam)

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure, if I can call it that, of attending the final dress rehearsal for the production on Wednesday March 28. It was without a doubt the most unpleasant experience I have ever had at the opera house in my entire life. It was so unpleasant to watch that there were parts of Act I in which I just had to close my eyes. For me, one of the worst parts was the lack of human interaction, save for a couple of brief moments (the one where Lulu looks Alwa in the eye and tells him that she killed his mother was particularly powerful). Thankfully, one of the people I was there with had brought along an English libretto, which we followed along in during Act II (which I enjoyed much more since I wasn't watching and simply listening to a great performance by Barenboim and the Staatskapelle). Act III, again, was frustrating, because we had no idea that they were cutting the first scene and thus it was almost the end that we realized what was happening.

Several of us got to hear Andrea Breth and Daniel Barenboim speak about the production the following day. She was very proud to tell us that it didn't matter if the audience didn't understand the production, that it was impossible to produce naturalistic opera productions in the 21st Century, and that Act III, Scene 1 was "impossible to stage" and that she would only direct the opera if that scene was cut. I was shocked that Barenboim agreed to it, and even more shocked that he admitted to agreeing to the decision without a thorough study of the scene. I felt like it destroyed the palindromic construction (something both of them harped on a lot), and was disappointed at the apparent carelessness of the decision.

All in all it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. There was no curtain call at the dress rehearsal, so no chance for anyone to boo, but several people left in the middle. A friend of mine noticed that many chose to do so when the curtain went up on Act II and the set hadn't changed.

Henry Holland said...

that it was impossible to produce naturalistic opera productions in the 21st Century

Sure, except for all the technology now that allows that to happen! This isn't 1812 or even 1912, there's ways to conjure up the *exact* setting that's required. I suspect she meant "modern audiences are so a-historical that they can't imagine something happening in the late 19th century so we have to make it 'modern' or else".

"Scene 1 was "impossible to stage"

She's a liar, and a bad one. I've seen three productions of this incredible opera, all with Cehra's completion, and *gasp* the director moved the characters around like the libretto told them to, had the characters interact like the libretto indicated and the opera didn't fall apart.

I was shocked that Barenboim agreed to it, and even more shocked that he admitted to agreeing to the decision without a thorough study of the scene

What?!?! That's pathetic, and I'm a fan of his conducting.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you all for the comments. Like Henry, I have no idea what Breth could possibly mean. Save for Loy's ghastly non-production at the ROH, I have seen that scene staged perfectly well in a variety of ways - but then that was a problem with the production as a whole, not the Paris scene. Maybe Breth couldn't direct it, but what arrogance therefore to claim that it is unstageable! Barenboim's part in this I genuinely find incomprehensible. When one thinks about the fuss he made concerning Stefan Herheim staging (very well indeed!) the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin...

The best production I have seen was that from Richard Jones from ENO: 'Lulu' as it should be, the blackest of comedies, a truly unsettling experience. I wish ENO would revive it. Willy Decker's Paris production had much to recommend it too. (I reviewed it last autumn here.)