It’s taken the best part of a century to achieve the transition of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu from femme fatale to victim.
That’s social change for you. Lulu is the feminist’s everywoman, her very existence shaped and manipulated by the men she encounters. In Wedekind’s plays and Berg’s unfinished but seminal opera she becomes whoever they want her to be. She goes by five different names. She writes the scripts. But she maintains a healthy detachment from her work.
Ditto Christof Loy’s unforgivingly austere staging. Aided and abetted by Herbert Murauer’s resolutely monochrome and minimalist design, the entire drama is dispassionately played out against receding screens with more than a suggestion of the frames and sprockets of film stock. This isn’t so much a staging as an art installation with the focus on the “human animals” – or as Berg’s libretto puts it, the “creepy crawlies” -who inhabit it. The look and feel of the show reflects Lulu’s emotional “disconnection” from her apparent journey of self-destruction. In Agneta Eichenholz’s stunningly cool performance she is a kind of picture perfect Audrey Hepburn in a simple black or white Channel frock. Her astonishment as each of the men are duly dispatched from her life is palpable. “Isn’t this where your father bled to death”, she nonchalantly remarks to Alwa (Klaus Florian Vogt) in their steamy act two encounter. You’d never guess that she repeatedly pulled the trigger.
Loy’s production lives the delusions in so stylised a fashion that even as Lulu is licking the blood of one husband off Dr. Schon’s fingers (the resoundingly authoritative Michael Volle) you remain, as she does, oddly detached. In that sense some may see his realisation as short-changing us. At least Richard Jones, in his famous ENO staging, had the guts to turn Lulu into a survivor. In Loy’s staging the men are the survivors quite literally coming back from the dead to exact their retribution on Lulu in the snuff movie of the final scene. Except that in the final image Countess Geschwitz (the excellent Jennifer Larmore) fills the empty spotlight awaiting Lulu and triumphantly announces her resolve to study hard and fight for women’s rights. So she in a sense becomes Lulu’s emancipation.
A stark and difficult evening, then - particularly if you are new to this piece - but one which throws Berg’s miraculous orchestral score into the sharpest possible relief. An additional star should therefore acknowledge Antonio Pappano’s wonderful work with the Royal Opera Orchestra in bringing this startling and ineffably poignant work to such ripe fruition.