One can appreciate Olga Neuwirth’s thinking behind updating Lulu to America between the 1950s and 1970s in her new interpretation of Berg’s unfinished opera. As Frank Wedekind’s original makes clear, the character of Lulu has been shaped by her own mistreatment and abuse by society. As a result, by making Lulu black, and setting her own journey against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, we are given a tangible explanation as to why she might have become the way that she is. She has been the victim of an oppression that has continued for so long that an inferiority complex has become frighteningly embedded into everyone’s psyche.
Once, however, this premise has been established it proves very difficult to develop, and the problem is compounded by the fact that none of Neuwirth’s other assertions in the programme concerning who Lulu is come across particularly strongly. The consequence is that it does not always feel as if we are being offered much more than a simple updating of time and place. In terms of the series of encounters with different characters, the plot remains similar to Berg’s original (although Act III is more different), and so the lack of an effective slant with which to engage feels like a major shortcoming.
There are, in fairness, two ways in which Neuwirth’s creation varies markedly from the Berg, and the first is in its format. While the original takes around four hours including intervals, American Lulu lasts 110 minutes without pause. It is not unknown to emerge from the Berg feeling that it was simply too much, but watching an ‘abridged’ version helps to reveal just how much more conducive the greater length is to immersing ourselves in the emotions being projected. This shorter version, by marring the pacing, makes us feel as if we are simply watching a series of events that follow one after the other.
One underlying problem is the production’s failure to make us care about, or even just feel sucked in by, any of the protagonists. This may be primarily attributable to John Fulljames’ staging (it was directed by Barrie Kosky at its world premiere in Berlin last year). The orchestra is situated on the stage behind a small performance area that is surrounded by stringed curtains which, when peeled back, suggest the laying bare of emotions.
Projections of New York or Lulu as depicted by Andy Warhol appear on the curtains, but the fairly minimal staging leads us to feel that too much is being explained to, rather than felt by, us. Almost everything we grasp about the dynamics of the various relationships comes from the dialogue (the performance is in English) rather than the physical interactions that we witness before us.
Although the character of Lulu fails to intrigue us to the extent that we instinctively understand why men are so drawn to her, no blame for this should be attributed to Angel Blue. She gives a highly assured performance, and in the process reveals a very fine and sumptuous soprano voice. In fact, the overall cast proves strong, with Donald Maxwell as Dr Bloom and Jacqui Dankworth as the jazz singer, Eleanor, standing out in particular.
The other key way in which American Lulu differs is in Neuwirth’s re-orchestration of the Berg. For example, the first two acts are dominated by a brass and woodwind ensemble, with electric guitar, electric piano, percussion, strings and Wonder Morton organ also playing a part. This proves highly effective at capturing the heart and soul of the jazz, blues, ragtime and cabaret sounds that were prevalent in the relevant decades. Even here, however, the music fails to stir the listener (for either better or worse) any more than Berg’s original, and so it cannot quite compensate for the underwhelming nature of the staging.
I do not expect every new creation that hits the stage to be ground breaking or powerful in the extreme, but for an adaptation of such a masterpiece to justify its existence it has to offer more than the original in at least some respects. Despite the music and performances making it enjoyable enough, American Lulu rather fails on this basic test.