Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Lulu @ Coliseum, London

1, 10, 16, 18, 23, 25, 28, 30 May 2002

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith)

Alban Berg’s long but unfinished, late-romantic masterpiece has finally been given a worthy London airing. The diminutive American Lisa Saffer in the title role fills the Coliseum’s huge stage. And Paul Daniel’s sensitive conducting allows the singers to be heard clearly (the Richard Stokes translation is excellent) but wallows unashamedly in the lush lyricism of the orchestral interludes between scenes.

Richard Jones’s thoroughly integrated production skates effortlessly from the ’30s to the ’50s (with one or two unobtrusive later references), giving prominence to the stark physical and psychological drama unfolding on stage. Rarely – in recent years – has there been such a meeting of minds and talents on the London stage.

This opera is difficult for so many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that Wedekind’s subject matter is distasteful: suicide, murder, prostitution, adultery, incest of sorts, lesbianism – und so weiter. Some of the first night audience did leave at the first interval; but they were a very small minority and they seemed to leave in awe, as if they had been tourists unwittingly visiting the temple of Baal or Dionysos and suddenly became aware of an other-worldliness about the experience.

In the opera Berg elevates these human failings to the level of the ordinary, the banal; the only thing that lifts any of his characters above the ordinary is their costume – and here Lulu stars, sometimes changing clothes in the middle of a scene, sometimes hardly clothed at all. And Lisa Saffer has the body that makes this more than possible. Strangely, what might have been a coup de theatre – Lulu’s dropping of her dressing gown for a little muff diving by Alwa – was somewhat anti-climactic. We had already seen so much that we had been dulled to the experience – surely Berg’s intention, achieved in this inventive production.

What’s it all about? This is the question that has remained on my mind after every other viewing of Lulu. The Jack the Ripper story is the easy part, but it occupies only ten minutes of the three hours. Who and what is Lulu? Berg was much more straightforward in Wozzeck; it is obvious that one ought to identify with the common man in all of his weaknesses and faults – in the case of Wozzeck a dark extreme. Perhaps because I am male I find it more difficult to identify with Lulu, but I do not find it impossible – and this production has made it almost easy.

Lulu is also difficult because of the forces involved. It requires a huge orchestra – Richard Straussian proportions – reinforced by additional experts on rare-ish instruments (unfortunately not acknowledged in the programme). On the first night there was vociferous praise for the orchestra at the second interval; at the end the orchestra declined to take a bow and instead applauded Paul Daniel and the Leader whom he led onto the stage. Paul Daniel controlled the orchestral forces rather like a lion tamer. He wanted the lion to roar, but only at the right time. This he achieved. The orchestral interludes were among the most affecting products of this best of all London orchestras – the so-called ‘symphony’ orchestras pale into insignificance in comparison. Why don’t they record as an orchestra – ENO: you have an outstanding resource at your disposal. Do it.

Conducting for the opera is rare nowadays. The prevailing view seems to be that the human voice is an instrument – rather like a sax or a flute. Well – I’m sorry – this simply doesn’t work. Not for the opera-goer who generally wants to hear the words, whatever language they are in – and more certainly for the potential opera-goer. Paul Daniel’s reading of this score is informed and incisive; his care for the singers is exemplary. Please please please would conductors at other opera houses take note.

The production is unobtrusively ingenious. Wedekind’s story and Berg’s score can hardly have been set in any single place or era; rather they are best given the universalisation of Hollywood. This is precisely what set designer Paul Steinberg and costume designer Buki Shiff have achieved.

This quasi-cinematic treatment also helps to bring out the way Lulu challenges various orthodoxies: the Professor of Medicine who drops dead à la Keystone Cops; the Painter’s melodramatic (and unnecessary) suicide which is only made real by the cinematic device of not showing it to us; the shooting of Schön (Sr) – one can’t imagine him with his clothes off! – and the demise of Schön (Jr), humiliated by life itself as well as by Lulu. All of this is thought-provoking, unlike other productions which have emphasised the disintegrative aspects of the opera or simply degenerated into slapstick.

Robert Hayward sings Dr Schön and Jack the Ripper (cruelly) with clarity and character. John Graham-Hall – better known in lighter roles, especially in Britten operas – captures the uncertainties of Alwa with the brilliance of a juvenile Noel Coward. Richard Coxon (the painter) sings with both conviction and care for operatic context, and has a body which happily can be displayed on stage – a rarity.

Lisa Saffer is an all-round performer. She wears her voice like an engagement ring: you should admire it (and I do!) but you should also ask a few more questions. She is a consummate actress; she’s got a (well, better say it…) great body, which we were all happy to see; her understanding of the opera is complete. One not to miss.

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Lulu @ Coliseum, London
Lulu @ Coliseum, London