Dressed to kill

Snakeskin slacks and a PVC skirt? What else would Lulu wear to her Glyndebourne debut? By Edward Seckerson
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Our master of ceremonies, the "Animal Trainer" (fixed smile, lurex suit and a follow-spot), welcomes us to his human zoo. It's show-time. Glyndebourne patrons shift uneasily in their seats as he passes his mirror over the orchestra stalls with a leer that says, "Recognise anybody? You will." And with that, to the doleful strains of a wailing alto saxophone, he presents his most prized creation, a creature of extraordinary talent and allure - woman.

Born of original sin, hoisted from the lower depths of all our imaginations, Frank Wedekind and Alban Berg's Lulu is re-born again in Glyndebourne's first ever staging. Slowly, ceremoniously, a huge hanging lamp is drawn through a hole at the centre of the stage, the earth, the universe. Coiled around it, in foetal position, is "the child of nature". Snakeskin trousers allude to her role in this "entertainment", an apple is placed in her hand. "Eve" awaits "Adam" in "the garden of Eden". But the sin is not hers.

Far from being "politically incorrect", as our present social climate would have it, Berg's harrowing opera is in truth the most passionately feminist of entreaties. Depending, of course, upon how you choose to play it. Graham Vick's Lulu, the excellent Christine Schafer, starts out an ordinary girl, an innocent abroad - neither temptress nor painted seductress, but rather the impassive, still centre of Vick's staging; by Act 3, she's a manipulative tart in a PVC dress. Shit happens to her, and then she dies. Because the creatures in this menagerie would have her be what she's expected to be, do what she's expected to do, behave as she's expected to behave. That is her lot as a woman. They take everything from her, including her name. Alwa talks about composing an opera about her (!) but settles instead (in their Act 2 love scene) for a hymn to her body. She is the object (literally) of their desires, lust, obsession, abuse - and the instrument of their self-destruction. Dr Schon, the one man she claims ever to have loved, calls her his "angel of death". He, in turn, is her destiny. He will be the death of her, and that's what makes him different.

And yet, whichever way you look at it, Lulu is not about real people at all. It's about human nature at its basest. It's about the animal in us all. Hence the "human zoo" allegory. And it is a zoo. There's an Ortonesque anarchy about Vick's production, more than a touch of What the Butler Saw in the scene in which the painter (Stephan Drakulich), minus his trousers, has his head up Lulu's jumper (in a kind of phantom pregnancy) just as her ageing and ailing husband enters on cue for his timely heart attack. As farce, it's cold and calculating, funny and cruel, sex-mad and yet sex-less. You don't - you can't - get too close to any of these people. They must remain, to a greater extent, stereotypical caricatures.

And so Vick plays out their disturbing games on Paul Brown's set of pristine, institutionalised brick. A staircase tracing the steep and precarious curve of life comes and goes, leaving entrances and exits disturbingly marooned in thin air. A double-revolve plays musical chairs with chairs and people alike. The huge hanging lamp of the opening scene turns into a sinister roving eye, rising and lowering, circling through the action as if to scrutinise it. It bears witness to Lulu's demise, peering finally into that hole in the ground from whence she came and into which she is now returned. Earth to earth.

Berg's intricate, volatile, surpassingly passionate score is a kaleidoscope of musical formalities made flesh and blood. And it sounds marvellous under Andrew Davis's searching direction. The London Philharmonic - now jazzily neurotic, now compassionate, downright opulent - serve him handsomely. Vick's gallery of grotesques has been most skilfully cast for type and talent. Schafer's Lulu wears the impossible coloratura effortlessly, like a natural voice, opening magnificently to her great moment of freedom in Act 2. David Kuebler is likewise thrilling in the testingly high tessitura of Alwa's role (no doubt he'd have gone easier on himself had he been the composer). Kathryn Harries truly ennobles the Countess Geschwitz, you can smell Norman Bailey's Schigolch and Donald Maxwell's lewd Athlete, Wolfgang Schone is a resolute Dr Schon and an even better Jack the Ripper.

That final scene, wherein each of Lulu's previous lovers comes back to haunt her, provides one of those great Graham Vick moments. Jack's entrance is not in any way signalled. The respectability of Dr Schon (or, for that matter, the traditional image of the Ripper) is not even hinted at: Jack wears an argyle sweater and a car-coat (anorak Jack). And it's only when the opera's great motif of love for Lulu and Schon rolls out in the orchestra that the realisation dawns, like deja vu, in our hearts and minds. In a moment out of time, they gaze longingly at each other, sure that, in another life, another place, they lived and loved. "Why are you looking at me like that?" says Lulu. "I love you so much. Don't make me beg..." It's the final irony. And, for once, it's heart-breaking.

n In rep at Glyndebourne to 19 Aug (booking 01273 813813); live on C4, 27 July; Prom perf (booking 0171-589 8212), also live on R3, 23 Aug