Alban Berg’s Lulu is a great opera, and greatly problematic.
Berg died leaving just a vestigial sketch of Act 3, which was heroically completed forty years later by Friedrich Cerha. But some felt Cerha’s act was too long, and in 2008 Eberhard Kloke published a slimmed-down alternative; directing the UK premiere of this version marks David Pountney’s launch of his artistic leadership of Welsh National Opera.
Based on Wedekind’s Lulu (eternalised on film by Louise Brooks), Berg’s Lulu is a celebration of the power of pre-moral sensuality. It’s a kind of ‘Rake’s Progress’, but Berg saw his heroine as a female Don Juan; his own sister was a lesbian, of whom the dignified Countess Geschwitz, devotedly in love with Lulu, was a fictionalised version; Berg also wrote himself into the work as the composer Alwa, whose lyrical tenor part is one of its loveliest elements.
Johan Engels’s set is a circular scaffold of gleaming steel presented in turn as a circus, casino, theatre, Paris apartment, and finally as the East London garret where Lulu meets her end at the hands of Jack the Ripper; garish lighting rings the changes.
The Lulu-portrait which accompanies the action is a headless torso of blood-stained limbs suggesting the Hindu goddess Kali. But when Marie Arnet emerges as Lulu from a body-bag dragged on by her male counterpart Schigolch, her ice-cold beauty is matched by the crystalline perfection of her coloratura.
Why is Schigolch (Richard Angas) got up as Wotan, and why does he come back on as Wotan at the end? This may bring an extra palindromic touch to an already palindromic opera, but it’s one of the production’s unexplained mysteries.
The opening works effectively, with circus animals morphing into humans who enact the ritualized cycle of death, suicide, and murder, and with the ‘portrait’ morphing into a bed for the lesbian amours. But here Berg’s interpolated ‘film’ scenario is replaced by an ahistorical mishmash tricked out with confusingly over-busy choreography.
As a result, the story loses focus and the horror is occluded, despite superb performances by Angas, Peter Hoare as Alwa, Ashley Holland as Schon, Natascha Petrinsky as Geschwitz, and the wonderful Marie Arnet. Conductor Lothar Koenigs brings out the intricate splendour of Berg’s score; on Kloke’s less adventurous score, this member of the jury - regretting the absence of the final quartet - is still out.