Classical review: Lulu - There's more to a company than power dressing

Welsh National Opera's bloody spree is packed with visual shocks but the finest artistry is in the pit

Anna Picard
Sunday 17 February 2013 01:00

She arrives in a body-bag, unwrapped by her daddy like a calf from a caul. Artist's model, actress and murderess, gambler, black widow and whore, Lulu is the embodiment of her era's anxieties – as old as religion, as modern as jazz, and entirely man-made.

Left unfinished when Alban Berg died in 1935, Lulu exerts a remarkable hold on the male imagination. Its amoral antiheroine is a blank canvas, only revealing of herself when faced with prostitution ("Must I sell the only thing that was ever my own?"). Vibraphone and saxophone eddy around her in an opiate haze. Even the strings seem to stop and stare, their serenades dissolving. Why? After Richard Strauss's Salome, Egon Schiele's hollow-eyed hookers, the sirens of Gustav Klimt and the syphilitic merry-go-round of Arthur Schnitzler's La ronde, was Lulu more than another sigh of the neurotic zeitgeist? To David Pountney, directing Berg's opera in his first production at the helm of Welsh National Opera, she is also a free spirit.

Pountney's introduction in the WNO Spring Season programme suggests a sort of sisterhood between Berg's "pretty beast" and Janacek's Vixen. On stage, he does much to undermine his own argument. Johan Engels's set is a stylised cage serving as circus, boudoir, casino and rookery. Draped in a series of glistening floor-length shifts by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, Marie Arnet's Lulu could be modelling for the hood ornament of a limousine, an Art Deco lamp, the façade of a sky-scraper, something made of chrome, steel or stone. Despite the references to Fritz Lang, the look is pure 1980s, heartless and vulgar.

A machine-age femme fatale, Lulu is a species apart from the animal-headed fools who despise and desire her, Peter Hoare's diseased Rabbit (Alwa) and Alan Oke's Crocodile (and also Prince, Manservant and Marquis). Her pimp and father is a top-hatted tramp (Richard Angas's Animal Tamer/Schigolch), her lover and killer, a white-suited dandy (Ashley Holland's Schön/Jack the Ripper). This is society as a series of libidinous grotesques, from schoolboy (Patricia Orr) to negro (Mark Le Brocq), with the spoken dialogue breathily pre-recorded in the style of a German porn flick. Immaculate in her icy coloratura, Arnet puts out with little evidence of directorial tenderness until she staggers to her death in a compressed edition of the third act. The bodies of her victims are strung up on high while a pile of dimpled female fat becomes a bed of giant buttocks and breasts.

Where is the love? In the pit, where Lothar Koenigs draws a performance of ravishing beauty and precision from the orchestra, and in Natascha Petrinsky's grave, generous Countess Geschwitz, the ultimate fool. Perhaps Pountney's instincts are right. Perhaps the only response to the imperilment of the arts is to come out fighting, to take Berg to Llandudno and be damned. But if WNO is to thrive, it would be good to see something new: a Lulu who is human, not a doll from the dreams of a dying culture.

Poor Berg was barely name-checked in The Sound and the Fury (BBC4, Tuesday ****), BBC4's answer to the Southbank Centre's year-long festival, The Rest is Noise. When each programme has to cover more than three decades in 20th-century music, corners must be cut. Thus while London Sinfonietta has supplied the sound for the series and accompanying concerts, sublimely in the case of Schoenberg's String Quartet No 2, the fury has come from those who already know their Serialism from their Systems Music. True, it would be nice to hear more voices in support of the sensual pleasures of modernism, the visceral impact of Varèse, the cool beauty of Webern. But a whistlestop tour of music history peppered with épater la bourgeoisie epithets from Steve Reich, John Adams, Meredith Monk and George Benjamin is not to be sniffed at.

'Lulu' to Sat (02920 636464), then touring; 'The Sound and the Fury' continues Tue on BBC4

Critic's Choice

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic goes Baroque with harpsichordist and conductor Ottavio Dantone (above) and violinist Giuliano Carmignola in works by J S Bach, W F Bach and Vivaldi, at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall (Wed & Thu). In London, Marin Alsop directs the LPO in The Rest is Noise season as the focus shifts to America. The London Adventist Chorale sings spirituals as a prelude to Dvorak's New World Symphony, Milhaud's La création du monde and Varèse's Amériques at the Royal Festival Hall (Wed), while Garrick Ohlsson joins Alsop and the LPO for Copland, Ives and Joplin (Sat).

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