Lulu - Royal Opera House, 4 June 2009 (first night)
What is it with opera directors and their fascination with film? Are they all frustrated Steven Spielbergs? Christof Loy isn't quite as nakedly entranced as the likes of Robert Lepage. His new Covent Garden Lulu foregoes the silent film traditionally played over the central interlude (per composer instructions). But the minimalist production embodies the dark tone and moral ambivalence of classic film noir in its laconic, stylised gestures and anonymous visuals. The set, nothing but a long sectioned wall that stretches across the stage like a length of film, underlines the point.
It's a workable concept, but it was a little lost in the vast expanse of the Covent Garden stage (fully visible from wings to flies thanks to unwaveringly stark lighting). With the cast clad in nineties office-wear and nothing but a chair on stage, it looked like a recently-burgled boardroom. Without scene changes or major lighting variations, it was hard to tell when time and location had changed. Some actions became downright incomprehensible - would anyone who didn't know the opera realise that when Alwa picked up an axe after the Painter's suicide he was breaking open an entirely non-existent door to reach the body?
And the shortage of reverberant surfaces meant that even the most powerful voices disappeared as their owners moved upstage. Miking them for the spoken sections solved half the problem, but it created a grating disjunct with the singing. If only the budget had stretched to walls.
Clearly some of the audience were less than thrilled - unusually lukewarm applause for the production team even included a few boos, a real rarity here.
It left the cast an uphill task to create something more than a concert performance, but they largely succeeded. Clearly well-rehearsed and choreographed to the inch, movement and gesture were as spare as the set, but every one was telling. Apart from the shoes. Nobody wants to wear stilettos for three hours non stop, but what was with all the taking off and putting back on again?
At the centre, Agneta Eichenholz as Lulu was superb in her Covent Garden and role debut. This Lulu is no coquette. She's a beautiful enigma, objectified in the eyes of those who desire her, but incapable of reciprocating. Agneta Eichenholz may look like Jennifer Love Hewitt as Audrey Hepburn but her Lulu was lethally iced. She started so tentatively I seriously worried she might rush off in tears. But she pulled herself together and nailed the impossible, stratospheric coloratura with ever-increasing confidence. At the end, far from spent, she sounded ready to do it all over again.
Michael Volle's robust Dr Schön was the other big hit. An adventurous director's dream, he has a big, heroic sound, he can act, and he's happy to look a bit of a t1t in the service of Art. Quite handy when you're daubed with lipstick and greasepaint in emulation of the lady wife's stage make-up (another touch that eluded my comprehension).
The blindingly-toothed Jennifer Larmore gave a touching and intelligently-nuanced performance as Gräfin Geschwitz, the reverse-image of the iron-clad Lulu in her femininity and vulnerabilty.
Philip Langridge's sleazy, seedy final act Marquis was his third and finest creation of the evening, following an equally-detailed Prince and Manservant.
Some of the other character doublings weren't so clearly differentiated, particularly Will Hartmann's attractively-sung Painter/Negro and Michael Volle's Jack the Ripper. Perhaps this was intentional - they reappeared for the final act wearing the same bloodstained clothes they'd died in way back in Act I. But this would ignore one of the points Berg's doubling makes - not that these characters are reincarnated but that the same kind of people exist in respectable bourgeois society as the shadowy world of pimps and prostitutes. And instead of being murdered by these 'dead' clients, Loy has Alwa slit his own throat, and Geschwitz is allowed to live - more neatly symmetrical perhaps, but again missing the point that those who truly care for Lulu are in the end destroyed.
Peter Rose's bravely-exposed jelly-belly Athlete raised most of the scant laughs of the evening - for his appearance rather than his commanding singing I should add. Klaus Florian Vogt's Alwa swam disappointingly in and out of focus, though the climactic second act encounter with Lulu 'on the sofa where your father bled to death' was done to devastating effect.
The orchestra were clearly well prepared for their trials and played cleanly throughout. Thanks to a kindly benefactor I was sitting much closer to the stage than I usually do - close enough in fact to observe Pappano in action. I didn't realise quite how much noise he makes or how much energy he expends, huffing and grunting and scrabbling his paws like a Jack Russell dreaming of rabbits. Whether it's for the orchestra's benefit or his own is not clear. Balance was exemplary and there was some beautiful detailing here and there. But in making the singers' difficult job easier by holding back when he could have been powering forward, an efficient accompaniment too often substituted for real dramatic tension.
My close quarters also permitted me to note that a couple of times a singer who shall remain nameless unselfconsciously sent great volleys of saliva arcing into the pit as he blasted forth. My advice to the horn section - if you think the roof's leaking, don't stick your tongue out to check...
************** curtain call photos on next page **************