American Lulu, Edinburgh International Festival, Kings Theatre


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The Independent Culture

Atonal opera is never the easiest performance to love. An atonal opera reconceived in the jazz style, about a charmless woman devoid of redeeming features, shoehorned into a clunky political setting, performed for almost two hours without an interval, has everything to do.

On its first outing, Olga Neuwirth’s new interpretation of Alban Berg’s unfinished Lulu failed on every count. So high hopes that this new version, American Lulu, directed by John Fulljames for Scottish Opera and The Opera Group, might turn it around. Sadly it did nothing of the kind.

This Lulu is, in theory, Ava Gardner as written by Maya Angelou. A prostitute since the age of 12, the plot demands that she has the havoc-wreaking sexuality to keep us going through two hours of profanity and gunshots atop a shuffling jazz-tinged score. American soprano Angel Blue has all the vocal flexibility and lush tones but none of the rawness that such a role demands. Instead she simpers and fiddles with her hair. We can see the tops of her stockings. Perhaps this should be enough.

The men are no more convincing, either in accent or characterisation, charging around the beaded curtain that separates the orchestra from the front-of-stage action. Robert Winslade Anderson, as the pimp Clarence, gets the unpleasant bit right but is otherwise wooden. Jacqui Dankworth, Lulu’s jazz singing lesbian dalliance, does a brave job but can’t rescue the rest.

This production is trying to say all kinds of important things about women, power and race. Lulu is used and abused by black and white men, forced into singing, performing, servicing clients. She goes to jail and returns as a Black Panther. But for this to work this requires more than an Angela Davis wig and clumsily spliced in Martin Luther King speeches. There is no attempt to address how this staggeringly narcissistic woman, who pats her curls while her protector dies beside her, becomes politicised. A blaxpotation movie strut and waving a gun does not fill that plot hole.

At one point, when Lulu is wearing a ridiculous ra-ra skirt made of plastic bananas, one of her lovers comments that she: “embodies all earthly joys”. Not in that costume she doesn’t. Another says: “that girl and her story would make a most daring opera.” Quite possibly. This, however, is not it.

13 to 24 September, Young Vic, London (020 7922 2922)