Elizabeth Davis reviews a new production of Berg's controversial opera
No one comes out of Berg’s Lulu well. Not even Berg.
The opera follows the tragic rise and fall of a woman known as Lulu (but also as Eve, Mignon and Nelly). She draws in men with her sensuality, sleeps with them and then one way or another causes their death. All without a qualm. She is woman as sin: Eve as temptress. And as such the story inevitably leaves a modern audience with a bad taste in their mouths.
The opera is based on Frank Wedekind’s books Earthspirit and Pandora’s Box which chart the dramatic life story of Lulu – a socialite, dancer, mistress and, finally, prostitute. After three marriages Lulu ends up in prison for the murder of her third husband. She escapes, flees to London and ends up as a prostitute when she has the terrible luck to solicit business from Jack the Ripper. Unsurprisingly, she has a violent end.
Welsh National Opera’s new production of the landmark 20th-century opera opened on Friday in Cardiff. Director David Pountney is unapologetic. His production, designed by Johan Engels with constumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, turns everything up to the max – Lulu’s dead husbands hang from meat hooks high above the stage and Lulu’s bed is a giant female torso, complete with crevices for her lovers to hide in.
Soprano Marie Arnet does a superb job in the title role but it’s hard to believe in her animal magnetism when she spends almost the entire opera wearing what look like brightly coloured swimming hats.
But close your eyes and you could be seduced. Conductor Lothar Koenigs guides the orchestra and audience through an opera which can be a tough listen with supreme confidence. Listen to the music and you can just catch a glimpse of the sensual sprite that Berg’s music describes. Lulu is unimaginably alluring and entirely amoral. Her first husband dies of a heart attack when he sees her seducing another man and her reaction is to wander off stage to change her outfit.
But like Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, there is not a woman living who can embody the myth of Lulu because she is a creature of the (male) imagination. Or as David Pountney puts it in the programme notes: ‘[Berg’s Lulu is] the unconscious expression of male angst at the implicitly perceived rising tide of female liberation’.
Lulu is entirely defined by the men around her, she is a blank page on which they each draw their own version of her.
Pountney’s production is an uncomfortable watch not just because of the nudity and violence but because of his refusal to soften Berg’s disturbing view of women’s sexuality. The impression you come away with is of an opera pulsating with the possibilities of modern music but with a medieval concept at its core.
'Lulu' is on at the Wales Milleinium Centre in Cardiff until 23 February and then on tour until 2 April. Visit the WNO website for more details.
Photos: Clive Barda