Friday 18 November 2016

Lulu at English National Opera, or, A Dated Shocker

Note: This is a slightly belated review of the performance on Saturday 12th November 2016.

I didn't have particularly high hopes in advance of this production. My previous encounter with the work of William Kentridge in Edinburgh did not impress me and a first hearing of operatic Berg (Wozzeck) at the Coliseum a few years ago did not make me want to rush back for more. So I booked for this primarily on the principle that I will see any opera once.

This show does have one strong element. It wasn't finally enough to sustain my interest over the 3 hour and 40 minute running time, but it does deserve high praise – the musical performances. During the first act I was a little doubtful as to whether Brenda Rae as Lulu had the necessary vocal weight – up in the Upper Circle there was a lightness to the voice when it seemed to me the role required more presence. But Rae's vocal performance does strengthen through the evening, there may also have been an issue with the layout of the set in Act One. She sings many of the high lying passages with great beauty – though I did think Mark Wigglesworth could have brought those rare more lyrical moments out more, it isn't all brutality – and in a punishing role her stamina sees her through to the end. She also throws herself fully into the acting side of the role – that that doesn't perhaps make the impression it could is a function either of the work or the production – I remain in doubt as to which. I was surprisingly impressed by both James Morris's Dr Schon and Willard White's Schigolch. The last occasions on which I heard them both I thought the voices were becoming strained and not up to the demands of the roles they were taking. Here this was not a problem. Both were vocally and physically compelling. The Countess Geschwitz is a smallish role for a singer of Sarah Connolly's talents, but her rich mezzo brought welcome vocal variety to the texture and she found, I thought, more in the not always convincing movement of the production than some of the others. Also very fine, as Lulu's other lovers were Michael Colvin's Painter, Nicky Spence's Alwa and David Soar's Athlete. The minor roles were all well taken. In many ways, from a vocal and acting point of view, this was a rich ensemble show of the kind that was once, before the disastrous John Berry era, ENO's calling card. In the pit Mark Wigglesworth draws committed and powerful work from the ENO Orchestra. My one quibble would be that there are some phrases in the text that seemed to me to hint at a greater complexity of character than the production really wanted to get at and that the musical interpretation could have done more to point those up – Lulu's reaction when her first husband dies for example.

So why, if the musical standards are so high, is this not a more satisfying evening? The major problem is the work itself, though it may be that the problem is with me. Regular readers will know that it is important to me to care about somebody or something in a dramatic work. This show failed to make me care. What I can't decide is whether this is a weakness of the work, or this particular production. The story, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is of the fascination that Lulu evokes in just about every man she ever comes across. Because, it seems, she cannot avoid fascinating an increasingly large number of men (and indeed women) at the same time, the individual primary partner of the moment is driven periodically insane and suicidal. Eventually, for reasons which were not wholly clear to me, Lulu is unable to attract a further rich man and ends up prostituting herself in the East End of London where she is murdered by Jack the Ripper (this last point would I think only have been clear to those who'd read a detailed synopsis). To me, in this performance, this narrative rapidly became repetitive. There was an absence of any real feeling, or sense of genuine emotional connection – either between the characters on stage or between them and the audience. In particular, the production did not convince me regarding the magnetic attraction the narrative requires Lulu to exert. Instead it seems to be arguing that the relationships between the sexes are unavoidably sordid, that people are essentially bestial (hence the opening words about preparing to see the attractions of the menagerie) and so on. Having made this point pretty comprehensively in Act One it then repeats it for a further two acts. Such an interpretation of sexual relations is wearily familiar in current opera/theatre productions. It, and indeed this work in itself, opens the way to nudity, sex and violence, but the production is surprisingly restrained in this regard. Having dispensed with emotional connection, it seems unclear about a replacement. It is possible to see that all this was probably much more shocking in the 1930s, and one way round this would be to locate it more explicitly in that era – there is some sense of that here but not enough. Even so, given the level of sex, violence and nudity on stage these days I find it difficult to see how the shock could really be recovered.

The problems of interpretation in this production are compounded by other familiar vices. William Kentridge, like many contemporary directors, is far too reliant on video projections (this time designed by Catherine Meyburgh, though I assume Kentridge as artist was substantially involved in them). Some of these are effective, but they have a classically maddening tendency to hammer points home that are just as clear without them and they are, as in many similar productions, excessively busy – less, as so often, would have been more. Also a problem are the two supernumeraries who haunt the stage from start to finish – one as a waiter type figure who periodically hands the leads key props, and one as a debauched piano player who will keep contorting herself around her instrument. She looks very similar to Lulu, but it was completely beyond me what point she was making apart from being an annoying distraction. But ultimately I come back to what seems to me an unsatisfactorily thin interpretation. It was not clear to me that Kentridge knew sufficiently what he thought about the story or about the characters. There are lines, as suggested earlier, which imply more depth of character – but Kentridge did nothing in his direction to bring them out. Even simple things seem to be ignored – the text informs us after his first appearance that Schigolch is Lulu's father – the direction does nothing with this point at all – their relationship remains opaque through the whole evening. Perhaps that's intentional in both work and direction but I did not find it dramatically effective. Overall there are impressive elements to this production, everybody throws themselves wholeheartedly into it but I did not find it a dramatically convincing evening and I did wonder if another director might find more in the piece.

In sum, there is fine musical work in this production. If you don't need to care about anybody in a show, or your sensibilities in relation to live performance are different, then you'll probably get on with this better than I. As for the production, as far as I was concerned it was another case where technology got the better of depth of character and thoughtful movement of performers.

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