It’s a relief to hear that even seasoned pros can struggle with the Second Viennese School.
Jennifer Larmore acknowledges that most people’s response to Alban Berg’s Lulu is “Aaaaaahh! Twelve tone music! Run the other way!” and goes some way to admitting that it was her own initial reaction.
“I was going through [the score] with my accompanist and I had to stop after five minutes, my mind didn’t understand what was going on,” she explains, “I was used to very melodious music and I didn’t hear the melodies in this until much later.” No one could accuse this American mezzo of playing it safe in the past her repertoire ranges widely between Monteverdi and Tobias Picker, and she is just as happy playing Rossini’s soubrettes as Handel’s heroes but with her role debut as Countess Geschwitz in Royal Opera’s new production of Lulu she is plunging into strange and uncharted waters.
Thankfully by the time we meet, a week before opening night, she has cracked the score and is now breathlessly excited about the opera. I leave equally enthused: Larmore is engaging company a slight Southern lilt betrays her Atlanta roots and she laughs freely and often and she is clearly passionate about her role in this project. Of course, she is quick to lavish praise on conductor Antonio Pappano (“I’m not just saying this to be tactful or nice, he’s really terrific”) and director Christof Loy (“he’s a geniushe has an enormous amount of ideas but he never imposes them, he takes your instincts and works with them”) and indeed the rest of the cast, but this has been very much her own process of discovery.
It’s 28 years since Lulu was last performed at Covent Garden and with most of the cast making role debuts this brand new staging is an exciting not to say risky endeavour. Music aside, it’s still a tricky piece. Berg’s warped and disturbing narrative conflates two plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, which chart their protagonist’s fall from high society to destitution. “I love how Tony describes it: My Fair Lady gone bad!” Larmore laughs. “It’s a real descent into hell and she drags everyone with her.” Alluring and sexually voracious, Lulu is, on the face of it, the classic femme fatale, but the concepts of predator and prey are ambiguous.
Among Lulu’s admirers a collection of gargoyle individuals that includes an acrobat, an artist, an animal tamer and the sinister Dr Schn Countess Geschwitz is perhaps the only humane character, and certainly the only one that remains constant. Larmore agrees: “She’s the only person who loves Lulu unconditionally, all the others impose conditions on her, they blackmail her, they use her, and they only love her when she’s beautifulbut at the end, when she’s descended into prostitution on the streets of London, Geschwitz says ‘I don’t care, you’re still beautiful because I love what’s inside you, and I will love you forever’ and that phew that’s almost Shakespearean, it’s like Sonnet 116.”
There are clearly huge depths to plumb in this opera, but there’s a caveat: “If you don’t do your homework, I’m not really sure how it will affect you,” Larmore says, rather ominously. “And don’t let it be your first opera, I think that would be hard to take, go to see The Barber of Seville first.” It’s true, you’d think Berg couldn’t be further removed from Rossini, certainly there’s no jaunty coloratura, nor the slightest whiff of romance in his music, but Larmore makes an interesting point. “One thing that people might not realise is that Berg said he wanted the singers to sing this as if it were bel canto, and you really can, there can be artistic legato and beautiful lyric lines.”
Perhaps Larmore was better prepared than she thought, for it was bel canto, and more specifically Rossini, that got her started. As a child she took flute and piano lessons and decided she’d like to become an opera singer at the age of ten when her parents took her to see a Met performance of La Traviata. After studying at the Westminster Choir College of Princeton, Larmore made her break in 1986 playing Annio and Sesto (on consecutive nights) in La Clemenza di Tito at L’Opra de Nice, which led to a string of Il Barbiere di Siviglia attachments around Europe. At one point she was doing up to five productions of the opera a year and Rosina quickly became known as her signature role.
In a number of Barbiere performances Larmore was joined by her pet Schnauzer who, until she died last year, had a successful stage career as Dr Bartolo’s dog and performed in some of the world’s most prestigious opera houses, including the New York Met, Opra de Paris and Deutsche Oper Berlin. “Oh everyone knew Sophie! She was on TV, she was on the cover of magazines, she was a great little pup for the stage, and she would come to recording sessions with me and sit on the sidelines and not make a sound.”
Since the early Nineties Lamore’s stage repertoire has vastly expanded but she is also an extraordinarily prolific recording artist, ‘the most recorded mezzo of all time’ according to her website, and five CDs have had Grammy nominations. Recital work, too, has constituted an important part of her career, and often a concert is combined with a master-class the following day. “I love educating young singers and for them to see someone whose been out there for a long time,” she laughs still effortlessly glamorous, it’s hard to believe Larmore celebrated her 50th birthday last year “but I don’t do the recitals simply to educate the audience, I think of myself as an entertainer.”
As for future roles, Larmore still has her heart set on Strauss’ Octavian she points out that her voice has acquired a shining top register in recent years and expresses an interest in Adalgisa in Norma and with the idea of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It’s the dramatic roles she enjoys most: she describes herself as “an actress that sings” and isn’t afraid to sacrifice the beauty of her voice for the sake of the character. “I want to communicate with the audience, I want to bring the audience up on stage with me, and to make them part of the experience.”
Lulu plays at the Royal Opera House on 4,8,10,13,17,20 June. Tickets at 020 7304 4000 or www.roh.org.uk