Some operas have a director's name on them from the start. Richard Jones's date with Lulu was always in the stars, and now that it's happened, it's hard to see how he could have made a better night of it. It's up there with his finest work, and when he's fine, he's mighty fine – one of the most stimulating talents working in theatre today. "Roll up, roll up – and be appalled!" cries the Animal Trainer at the start of the show. Believe me, that's an offer you can't refuse.
For Animal Trainer read Soho spiv. Jones's Lulu is framed in the window of a sex parlour. "Adult Entertainment", screams the neon sign. Ruched curtains, the colour of bile, open on a kitsch, Rousseau-like tableau. Lulu – untamed in Pierrot costume – is at the centre of a Jungle Book peep-show. And above the window that frames her are written all the pet names by which she will be known. This is the key to Wedekind and Alban Berg's Lulu – and that which will unlock Jones's staging. Lulu will be what any man or woman wants her to be. She will play any script they give her. But as Jones makes clear, all the characters in these interwoven scenarios lose the plot. They effectively write their own destruction. Until, that is, Doctor Schön is transformed into Jack the Ripper and Lulu finally becomes the victim. Or does she? Jones has a startling twist in store.
The show looks stunning. Jones's set designer Paul Steinberg opts for queasy Fifties kitsch. It's subversive, like a violation of Art Deco from the period in which the opera was written. We flash through a series of gaudy parlours, one decked out in bronco- buster style with Lulu in cowgirl/cowboy outfit, like one of Countess Geschwitz's lesbian fantasies. At every crisis, Lulu changes outfits as she might character (costume designer Buki Shiff). Paramedics rush in to attend to the latest victim, but have eyes only for her. There's a wonderful rhythm and symmetry to Jones's staging. One part of the set that remains a constant throughout is the grey wall on which is mounted a sink. Dr Schön – a commanding Robert Hayward – repeatedly washes his hands there as if preparing for the moment when, as her nemesis, Jack the Ripper, he will wash her blood from his hands.
Lulu is Lisa Saffer giving a performance of astonishing technical and dramatic assurance. The words are sometimes a problem in the heady flights of her coloratura but that, of course, is her secret weapon, and she uses it to indecently titillating effect. From an excellent ensemble, I should single out Gwynne Howell's unsavoury Schigolch, Richard Coxon's persecuted Painter, Robert Poulton's Animal Trainer and Acrobat, Susan Parry's Geschwitz, and the Alwa of John Graham-Hall. He makes the transitions into spoken melodrama especially vivid (in Richard Stokes's new translation there seems to be more of it), and his Act II duet with Lulu comes on strong, like non-conformist Puccini. Who says there aren't ravishing tunes in this sexy, febrile score, which blurs the natural distinctions between tonal and atonal?
Paul Daniel and the ENO orchestra give us some of the finest work I've yet heard from them. The complexities are fearful, but through it all, the boozy lyricism of Dr Schön's music, like Mahler on the turn, tenders yearning and ineffable sadness.
In the end, does Lulu the victim becomes Lulu the survivor, rewriting her script one last time after a hard day's night on the game? Go find out. Those predicting doom and gloom for ENO in recent months had better start rewriting their scripts.
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