Lulu, Royal Opera House, London
One Evening, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Mitridate, Sadler's Wells, London
Alban Berg's 'Lulu' was never a date opera, but a new production makes a bleak story even bleaker. The joy comes in the searing music from the pit
Sunday 07 June 2009
A change of name, a change of lover, a change of dress, and always the money, the money, the money. Styled in charcoal and black, with little more than a chair, a gun, a handful of banknotes and a long glass screen, Christof Loy's stark, spare Lulu for the Royal Opera House is antithetical to Richard Jones's vaudevillean English National Opera production of 2002.
There is no fairground fun to be had here, no freakshow glee, no leopard skin. Just a succession of sombre suits and little black dresses, of lovers killed and resurrected, of eyes blank with duty, bright with greed, bleak with pain, and the crude rituals of virtual and actual prostitution.
As Peter Rose's Animal Trainer warns us, this is no bourgeois entertainment. Never a date-opera, Lulu is, in Loy's production, a work that would make anyone swear to celibacy. Here is sex in all its transactional ugliness, wrecked from the offset by abuse. Mistress, wife and whore, chimera and cliché, daughter and doxy, quick-change artist and hand-job virtuoso, Agneta Eichenholz's Lulu (or Nelly, or Mignon, or Eva, or Adelaide) is a blank, supple canvas for the desires of the Professor (Jeremy White), the Painter (Will Hartmann), the Prince (Philip Langridge), Alwa (Klaus Florian Vogt) and the Schoolboy (Heather Shipp). Idealised and vilified, worshipped and detested, she is loved most casually by her father Schigolch (Gwynne Howell), most tenderly by Countess Geschwitz (Jennifer Larmore), and most destructively by Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper (Michael Volle), her protector, pimp, husband, victim and, finally, killer.
Paper-thin of body and voice, Eichenholtz is utterly convincing in this most unconvincing role, while Volle's raging, ruined Dr Schön towers over a strong supporting cast. Jennifer Larmore's lovestruck, guileless Geschwitz – Loy's cleverest characterisation – holds a tiny kernel of kindness in an otherwise unremittingly brutal and depressing creation.
Movement is minimal, the lighting and sets (Reinhard Traub and Herbert Murauer) migraine-inducing in their severity. In the pit there is severity of a different kind: searing sensuality, arresting discipline and scorching detail. Lulu may not appeal to many of Covent Garden's regulars (Berg is not box-office friendly); but those who wish to hear Antonio Pappano and his orchestra at their most engaged and audacious should brace themselves for a long evening of sore eyes, sour thoughts and sensational musicianship.
A smattering of vacated seats at the close of One Evening, Katie Mitchell's dreamlike interweaving of Samuel Beckett's poetry and Franz Schubert's songs, in a new translation by Michael Symmons Roberts, indicated that some of those present expected a straight recital of Winterreise by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Andrew West, perhaps with a few choice readings from actor Stephen Dillane and some genteel imagery. Mitchell doesn't do genteel, nor does her interest lie in curatorship. Just as After Dido infuriated those who had expected a staging of Dido and Aeneas, this forensically choreographed collage of verse, song and live and recorded sound-effects drove some listeners crazy. But taken as a work in its own right, One Evening, as Beckett put it, "seems to hang together".
Here, the unlamented corpse of Beckett's poem becomes that of Schubert's narrator. With spoken verse insinuated between the songs and into the fabric of their cadences, and the three performers busy with chamois leathers, door latches and sandpaper, Mitchell creates a pervasive soundscape of trudging footsteps, shuddering breaths, frigid fingers clumsily pawing at tobacco tin and cigarette paper or scraping at the ice-bound earth. Spring, remembered or imagined, is brought to the foreground in a soundtrack of rippling water, hissing leaves and distant sheep. Sunlight is the sharp whine of a violin bow drawn across the rim of a hand-bell.
Some songs are spoken or omitted. Half-howled, half-crooned into a microphone, those that remain achieve a lunar, distracted quality exemplified by Padmore's "Wasserflut" and echoed in Dillane's rasped intonations. Having puzzled over Simon Keenlyside's danced Winterreise in 2003, I was surprised by how much I wanted to hear One Evening again, preferably with West's playing higher in the mix. Not as a replacement for conventional recitals of Winterreise, but as a complement to them.
Almost everything that could have gone wrong in Martin Lloyd-Evans's touring production of Mitridate for the Classical Opera Company did. With Stephen Wallace (Farnace) unwell and Sigridur Osk Kristjánsdóttir (Arbate) in hospital, Rodopi Gaitanou, the assistant director, walked Arbate's walk while Stephanie Marshall sang from the side of the stage. Simon Corder's Helmand province set designs – all missile crates, aerial maps, laptops and fluorescent strips – featured five screens and as many video cameras. Variously one line behind or one line ahead of the line that was being sung, the translation danced from screen to screen, the others showing either planned reaction shots or random close-ups of the lapels of passing jackets. Mark Le Brocq (Mitridate), Kishani Jayasinghe (Sifare) and Wallace's vocally compromised but dynamic Farnace aside, the cast were notably uninvolved in Mozart's early drama of filial rebellion. Mary Nelson's Ismene was peevish and dry, Allison Bell's Aspasia squeaky and unidiomatic. In the pit, Ian Page and the orchestra ignored the flaccidity of the production and delivered a sizzling performance of this newly restored score. Unable to bear more miscued supertitles, I slipped out before Act III.
'Lulu' (020-7304 4000) to 20 Jun; 'Mitridate' Buxton Opera Festival (0845 127 2190) from 12 Jul
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