Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Lulu @ Coliseum, London

18, 21, 29 April, 5, 7, 10, 13 May 2005

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith/ENO)

Lulu, this last great flowering of lushly romantic lyricism, makes a very welcome return to the London stage in the Three Act version realised, nearly forty years after Alban Berg’s death, by Friedrich Cerha. Lisa Saffer makes an equally welcome return in the gruelling title role – more of which later.

Berg’s masterpiece still arouses deep, emotional responses; it still offends the sensibilities – if not the morals – of some opera-goers because its portrayal of the human condition stretches comfortably genteel credibility beyond its well-known elasticity. None of us in the audience likes to admit that Berg is presciently describing our world today – perhaps little changed from the world of the 1930s when he composed the music; possibly unchanged from the turn of the century when the original texts were published. Dare we admit there is an abiding – if not eternal – dimension to this narrative of human degradation.

The moods of Lulu also owe much to early Twentieth-Century developments in anthropology and particularly Freudian psychology – the father fixation on Dr Schön which overrides normal relations for both Lulu and Schön and leads to the latter’s jealousy, desire to ‘do the right thing’ by punishing Lulu, and ultimately death. Despite all his efforts, Schön simply can’t resist her, and the climax – figuratively in this case – of her dictating a letter for him to write (breaking his engagement to another and sealing his attachment, however unhealthy, to Lulu) is accompanied by that most compelling musical motif which recurs as the Ripper’s satisfaction at the end of the opera.

This brash, challenging, always inventive and intelligent production by Richard Jones has an integrity of concept the strength of which grows in the mind of the viewer as it unfolds. The only parts of the simple yet seemingly lavish sets that remain constant throughout the performance are the sink, beneath which a waste basket gradually fills with the used paper towels cast off by ritual hand-washers (chiefly Schön/Jack the Ripper), and the door adjacent to it – a door which leads promisingly from one world to another in a universe in which all worlds are the same.

Again owing its concept to late Nineteenth-Century European intellectual developments – in this case Darwinism – the life-like stuffed animals of the first scene give way gradually to a succession of animal skins splayed on the floor, substantial heads occasionally mounted by humans as if the latter have somehow risen above their savage origin. Sorry, honey! – they haven’t.

The playing of the ENO Orchestra, which I have often lauded as the best in London, seemed a little stultified at the outset – perhaps intentionally; but by the great swelling interlude between scenes Two and Three the playing had reached a sublime expressiveness rare in any performance and maintained – despite two intervals – till the harrowing end. The loss to London of Paul Daniel is incalculable.

When asked whom I had seen in the title role at Covent Garden in the ‘80s, I couldn’t remember, but Lisa Saffer can never be forgotten. Unlike some of the singers who intentionally stabbed at the notes, Lisa Saffer’s command of timbre and mood – above all in her recitatives – is magisterial; her acting is utterly believable. (If you, gentle reader, need an example: not every operatic soprano is called upon to give a blow-job on stage – more than once!)

Robert Hayward was also returning to the role of Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper. His clarity of diction and chilling depth of tone are most rewarding to hear. The coolness of his action in the denouement is unforgettable. We look forward to his forthcoming Jokanaan. Invidious comparisons are bound to be made with Bryn Terfel. I’d endorse the purity of Hayward’s tone over the voluminous depth of Terfel’s. We’ll see. The rest of the cast was above standard.

By the time the f-word intrudes into the excellently idiomatic translation (except for those gnädige fraus etc.) by Richard Stokes, you’ve already seen so much in the way of depravity that a word has no particular impact. It seems natural…in that world. The problem is: that world is the real world.

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Lulu @ Coliseum, London
Lulu @ Coliseum, London