“The risk of the plot (it is) so considerable that, after three years of work, it could happen that I had a play shut up in a drawer which could only be played before a selected public”. Alban Berg weighed this way the risk of going deep into an adventure like Lulu while he simultaneously watched another story out of the corner of one’s eye, the Gerhart Hauptmann’s Pippa. The result was one of the most important operas of the 20th century with a score full of a great musical richness that extended the horizons of the new twelve-tone technique. “It’s the prose of music”, Schönberg quoted once.
Agneta Eichenholz as Christof Loy’s ‘Lulu’
The stage director Christof Loy has assumed the risk of telling a tragedy like Lulu from a minimalist view, “essentialist” as it’s said in a previous press briefing. This story has such a dramatic force and is on everyone’s lips that it’s worth the effort. It’s a good starting point trying to tell a “musical prose” opera from a prose perspective of a naked stage but also is a tough challenge.
Lulu’s Loy is based on good ideas. As usual in such conceptions, a highly dramatic charge remains in the expression and face of the singer-actors, who face the test of evoke their intense inner drama. The combination of lighting and the movement of a long translucent glass panel frame the empty space prowled by the characters. Wardrobe only changes for the two main characters, Lulu and Geschwitz, as a symbol of their splitting throughout the opera. Nevertheless, for more than three hours of performance, there is something that doesn’t work out well in this proposal, as though the needed mortar to unit all this model’s pieces was missed.
The atmospheres are well constructed. It is significant how at beginning of the third act, although the city of Paris is a wide open space, is difficult to us not to feel the sensation of squalor and narrowness that impregnates the opera. It is like a dummy happiness, a feeling of disappointment provoked by what René Girard called the “romantic lie”. Perhaps there is no better form to describe Lulu’s mood: that annoyance before a no-way happiness that she begins to verify when her union with beloved Dr. Schön finished in fiasco. That was her “verweile doch”, represented in stage by a great bunch of white roses. While the roses fall from her arms, one by one, her faith in a better future also does.
But Loy is less fortunate with the beginning scene that lacks of dramatic force the story has: the allegory where the characters are represented by animals. The same happens with Lulu’s portrait that in libretto is always present and symbolizes her idealized view. We only know about it because of the dialogues but it wouldn’t have been surplus to requirements using some additional elements, as could be a mirror.
Agneta Eichenholz gives her good-looking and voice to a fragile, ruthless and icy Lulu. Supported by her delicate phrasing and fair tone but showed a sort of insecurity in high notes. Susanne Elmark, who made her Lulu’s role debut in Madrid, offered a much more carnal and sultry Lulu that after prison evolves in a very strained character and feels uneasy with the world. Blessed with high notes of great loudness, she was in good voice. Jennifer Larmore countered to both with a bereaved and long-suffering Countess Geschwitz, who highlights all her fine dramatic sense in a not habitual score for her voice. Among other characters, we can heighten Paul Groves as Alwa, who sang a beautiful duetto with Agneta Eichenholz at the end of the second act. Also the Prinz of Gerhard Siegel had the suitable cynical point and the veteran Franz Grundheber showed a diminished and surviving Schigolch. The beauty of Berg’s score was in hands of a Madrid Symphony Orchestra that usually gives its best in contemporary repertoire. Sometimes confused, Eliahu Inbal conducted keeping his eye more in the orchestra than the singers and the scene where the voices were almost buried by strong and sonorous volumes.
Lulu’s despair lies in the ignorance of who really is the victim and who is the tyrant. This dramatic complexity, joined to a magnificent score, is the greater challenge for putting on stage this opera. The crimes follow each one another in a narcotized atmosphere by social values as volatile as the Jungfrau actions. It’s like a premonition of the “Banality of Evil” wrote by Hannah Arendt many years later.
Berg: Lulu. Premiere on September 28th, 2009. Conductor: Eliahu Inbal, Production: Christof Loy. Set and Costume: Herbert Muraurer. Lighting: Reinhard Traub. Choreographer: Thomas Wilhelm. Casting: Agneta Eichenholz, Susanne Elmark (Lulu), Jennifer Larmore (Gräfin Geschwitz), Will Hartmann (Der Maler), Paul Groves (Alwa), Gerd Grochowski (Dr. Schön), Franz Grundheber (Schigolch), Gerhard Siegel (Der Prinz), among others. Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid.
Photo: Clive Barda
Another review in Spanish on this performance (not a translation): El ángel exterminador