Christof Loy’s mind-numbingly tedious staging of Berg’s Lulu achieves the impossible – it allows Berg’s masterpiece to come across as a turgid and overlong evening of musical endurance. If it weren’t for the superlative conducting, playing and generally first class singing, this new Lulu would be a total write-off.
Berg’s second and unfinished opera, Lulu, is one of the masterpieces of 20th century music theatre. Its impact is even more visceral when performed in the three-act version, as the Royal Opera does here, which was completed in the ’70s by Friedrich Cerha. In tackling this tricky score for the first time Antonio Pappano and the well-drilled members of the orchestra deliver a blistering account of it, surmounting all the difficulties with apparent ease and finding plenty of lyricism to counterbalance the hard abrasiveness of Berg’s writing. They were the undoubted heroes of the hour.
The eponymous heroine is notoriously difficult to cast and whilst Agneta Eichenholz was edgy and shrill to begin with (first night nerves I would imagine) she settled down as the evening progressed. Jennifer Larmore looked and sounded stunning as the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, whilst those two Royal Opera stalwarts Peter Rose and Philip Langridge provided expert cameos in a multitude of roles. Gwynne Howell made his mark as Schigolch but by the far the finest performance came from Michael Volle as a voluminous Dr Schön and suitably creepy Jack the Ripper. The much-trumpeted Klaus Florian Vogt made his house debut as Alwa, but failed to make much of a mark.
That most of the singers failed to project any sense of character over the footlights was due to Christof Loy’s dramatically inert staging which drained the work of all sense of location, drama and vitality. Herbert Murauer’s designs consisted of an empty stage portioned off with frosted glass, in front of which the characters in dark suits (men) and black dresses (women) drearily went about their business. The opening tableau of the third act looked like a champagne reception in the lobby of a Shrager hotel that had got horribly out of hand after someone had spiked the bubbly not really what Berg had in mind.
The only prop was a chair, and it’s not surprising that after having to stare at a black stage and assorted costumes in various shades of black for almost four hours, the soporific audience gave the performance one of the most lukewarm receptions I’ve witnessed at a first night in years. I’m all in favour of non-literal stagings but it’s inexcusable when a director wilfully drains a masterpiece such as this of its very theatrical essence as Loy did here. Productions of Lulu do not come around that often which makes this misguided effort all the more depressing.