Alban Berg: Lulu
La Monnaie, Brussels. Recorded 19 and 26 October 2012
Belair BAC 109 (2 DVDs)
Who’s going to complain about a Regietheater Lulu? The usual Luddite clichés surely don’t apply here – if you want an evening at the opera to be pretty and soothing, you’re unlikely to choose Berg. But even so, director Krzysztof Warlikowski has taken his concept to sensationalist extremes, and rather than just suggesting all the sex and exploitation angles of the story, he confronts us with them head-on.
The set and designs, by Małgorzata Szczęśniak, place the opera in a 60s/70s environment, the era of Cerha’s completion perhaps. There is a full-sized escalator to one side and a moving glass box to the other. Costumes are gaudy and surreal, and there is a definite pop-art dimension to much of the conception. So the painter (the wonderful and here sadly underused Tom Randle) is now a video artist, and a giant video-instillation screen looms over the action, its semi-abstract images often commenting on the action. Lulu’s background as a dancer is an important inspiration for Warlikowski. It turns out his Lulu, Barbara Hannigan, can dance en pointe (what can’t she do), a skill he puts to good use throughout the first act. He also uses the ballet theme to introduce two alter egos for her, a child ballerina in white and a mature one in black – so White Swan/Black Swan. One of the director’s indulgences is to frame each of the acts in brief spoken or silent episodes, the most effective of which is at the end of the first act, where the black-clad ballerina dances a silent solo, graphically representing Lulu’s mental decline.
The staging doesn’t change much throughout the production. Only curtains and lighting are used to alter the mood and atmosphere. There’s the costumes too, particularly Hannigan’s – she seems to be in a continually evolving (or degenerating) state, in shabbier attire every time we see her.
Warlikowski has a lot of ideas to present, but, at least on video, his conception is never overwhelming. The young ballerina alter-ego develops her own sub-plot, and by the last act has spawned a whole ballet school, all the young ballerinas at the back of the stage watching the action. The glass box offers an alternative stage, where abstract reflections on the action can be played out, usually by characters who should be off-stage. A camera in there is linked to the giant video screen in the first act – a kind of Big Brother video room setup. Warlikowski also has fun with the dual role of Schön and Jack the Ripper (the excellent Dietrich Henschel). As Jack the Ripper, he is presented as the Joker from Batman, but this is presaged in act I, when Schön starts applying lipstick across his face to begin the transformation. Tom Randle also takes a double role, reappearing as the Negro in the last act. This time, though, the costume – he’s got a giant afro wig, and he is kind of whited-up – makes recognition all but impossible. The Ringmaster (Ivan Ludlow) is masked and in sexually ambiguous dress. He is onstage almost throughout, a continually oppressive and controlling presence.
Yet Barbara Hannigan is the dominant presence here, and her performance dictates every aspect of the staging. She is fantastic at just about everything. The precision and power of her voice is ideal – she doesn’t have a particularly broad or rich tone, but this isn’t Wagner. Her acting and dancing abilities make here ideal for the role, and even without the multiple costumes (and she is often without), her portrayal of the character’s decline is graphic and gripping. In fact, she is so good that the onus is on the director to use her to her full potential, and even with this idea-heavy staging, there is the occasional suspicion that she is carrying the show.
That said, she is supported by a strong cast. Natascha Petrinsky’s Geschwitz, Deitrich Henschel’s Schön and Charles Workman’s Alwa are all well acted and well sung. Vocally, the only disappointment is Pavlo Hunka as Schigolch; his voice lacks presence and depth, and there is no richness to his lower register. The Orchestra of La Monnaie plays well for Paul Daniel. He was apparently a late substitution for Lothar Koenigs. Daniel paces and balances the score well. He is a little pedestrian at times though, and we rarely feel the indulgences and excesses that the score can offer in more daring hands.
Given the visual complexity of the staging, the video team has had quite a job. Typically, at any given point, the front of stage action will be accompanied by at least two other scenes upstage, plus the video screen. And the stage is too big for a single frame to offer the required detail. So there are a lot of close-ups and some fast editing in places. None of this distracts, but it means that the video experience is clearly very different from the live one. The audio is reasonable, and none of the singers ever sound distant. There is some peak distortion though, a result perhaps of the very wide level range.
Colourful packaging from Belair. It is unusual to get colour stills in DVD booklets these days, so they are welcome here. An essay from Barbara Hannigan herself is included, an indicator of how much this production revolves around her. All round it is a success, I think, though hardly an enjoyable experience. Warlikowski provides an idea-rich environment for the drama to play out, but ultimately even his contribution is dwarfed by that of his leading lady.