OPERA / No problem: Nick Kimberley on concert performances of Berg, Stravinsky and Bizet

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The Independent Culture
The complexities of Berg's operas Wozzeck and Lulu are a cryptologist's paradise, yet in an article written in 1928, 'The Problem of Opera', Berg said (about Wozzeck, but it could apply to Lulu), 'from the moment the curtain rises, no one in the audience should noticeanything of these fugues, inventions, suites and sonata movements, variations and passacaglias. Nobody must be filled with anything but the idea of the opera'.

The problem of opera in concert performance is that the curtain never rises, the 'idea of opera' is often all we get. Perhaps that's the best we can hope for with Lulu, unseen in this country since Covent Garden's 1981 performances. English National Opera's planned staging was thwarted by financial constraints, and that problem won't go away (although there is talk of a Glyndebourne production).

Last Friday at the Royal Festival Hall, as part of Towards the Millennium, Andrew Davis conducted Lulu in concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the performance had its own theatricality. Patricia Wise's Lulu looked like Cher at the Oscars, and every member of a fine cast strove for a theatrical presence within the limits of the concert platform.

The performance borrowed Glyndebourne's surtitling system, with the usual mixed results: premature laughter when the translation appeared before the line had been sung, whole passages left untranslated. Still, rather surtitles than no translation at all of a dense text. There were also problems keeping track of the cast's multiple doublings when evening dress for the men was the order of the day.

But enough carping. The occasion was special, and the audience appreciated it: I don't think I've heard such an attentive audience at the end of an opera. Patricia Wise has played Lulu all over Europe - why is the opera viable there, not here? - and she is wonderful, vocally commanding. At first her Lulu was something of an empty-headed flirt, a viable interpretation if not the only one, but as she descended to the lower depths, the characterisation gained complexity. Some shrillness in the voice could also be licensed as interpretation.

If Wise dominated, she had firm support. Ryszard Karczykowski's Alwa was strained, but well acted, and Wolfgang Schone's Jack the Ripper was a chilling, cunning brute. There were no weak links in the large cast, but Jane Henschel and Lenus Carlson were particularly impressive. The only singer who needed a score was Nigel Robson, but that hardly affected the pulsating drama, which at one point even involved Andrew Davis as a heavy-handed copper.

But it was Davis the conductor who really made his mark, controlling the huge score with solid authority. The strain showed in the sweat stain that slowly spread through his tail-coat, and there was relief and jubilation in his face as he mopped his brow at the end. Stirring, challenging, moving: not bad for a concert performance.

The next day Chelsea Opera Group came to the Queen Elizabaeth Hall in concert performances of two rarities, Stravinsky's The Nightingale, sung in English, and Bizet's Djamileh, sung in French but with English commentary replacing spoken dialogue. Under Michael Lloyd, Stravinsky was somewhat soporific but well sung, particularly by Eileen Hulse as the Nightingale. There was plenty of vigour in Bizet's orientalist whimsy, filled with wonderful orchestral touches, including a piano. Philip Sheffield made a nicely cocky Haroun, brought to heel by Margaret McDonald's touchingly sung Djamileh.

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