Tuesday, 24 September 2013

American Lulu

Young Vic theatre
23 September 2013

The original production in Berlin last year was significantly different to the Young Vic production.

A challenging and absorbing variation on the Lulu myth.

What attracts us to the Lulu story? I asked this as a steady trickle of audience members left during what is after all a very short opera – just 100 minutes. Were they bored, offended by the music, offended by the subject?

More specifically, what drew composer Olga Neuwirth to effectively recompose the first two acts of Berg’s original work, and compose an entirely new final act?

Perhaps a desire to give Lulu’s side of her myth, as the composer suggests in an informative programme essay. But we only learn things that Berg, Pabst or Wedekind could have provided, if so inclined: that our heroine suffered a history of abuse, or that she was a hardened criminal age twelve.

Lulu has no true inner life, and this is central to her appeal, which may also be the appeal of her story. As her lovers point out, she combines fatally irresistible physical charm with a disarming lack of self-awareness, or even interest in herself. She is no scheming femme fatal.

Berg surrounded her with a rogues gallery of expressionist stereotypes, which Neuwirth sensibly maintains, with one unfortunate exception. Still, nobody steals the limelight from the central character.

Changing the setting to the US straddling the civil rights and blaxploitation eras, and making Lulu herself African-American, is a mixed blessing.

Textually, it is a mistake. We first hear Martin Luther King describe the kind of person who engages in conspicuous consumption rather than in political action, and recognise he is describing the Lulu we see on stage. Can Neuwirth really be attempting to lecture African-Americans in this way?

Musically, it works. Neuwirth’s reorchestration, or full-on rewriting of Berg results in a sound-world that has echoes of blues, jazz, hot buttered soul and so on, all presented in a thrillingly ‘make it new’ modernist idiom. Berg would surely have approved.

The composer is right to criticise Berg’s perfunctory conclusion, but her own solution is no better. Lulu, it seems, must die violently. But worse than this, something goes terribly wrong with her lesbian lover Geschwitz. The most sympathetic character in Berg’s work becomes a mess here.

Part of the fault may lie with the director, John Fulljames, who may have violated Neuwirth’s intentions by suggesting that Lulu is freed by the Athlete, rather than Eleanor (Geschwitz). Certainly Eleanor’s brutal rape is even more unpleasant if we feel it is pointless. Certainly glimpses of the original Berlin production (above) suggest a different approach is possible.

But as Neuwirth explains in her essay, she contrasts Eleanor’s painful self-determination favourably with Lulu’s supposed lack of the same, as the latter appears content with being a lust object. In practice, this is a peculiar misstep, and I felt very little for the smug, preachy Eleanor, whereas Berg’s hopelessly infatuated Geschwitz is extremely moving.

Here the composer momentarily lapses, by passing judgement on the amoral Lulu. Berg doesn't quite make that mistake, though his Geschwitz gets more of our sympathy.

I’m not sure Berg’s opera is a masterpiece, and this doubt applies moreso for Neuwirth’s new work. But both seem very powerful, and for the most part gripping.

In any performance of any Lulu, the lead actress must somehow compete with the iconic Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box. Angel Blue’s acting and singing were impressive, even if she seemed too self-aware for this role.

Other parts were well-taken, with Robert Winslade Anderson’s Clarence as scene stealing a performance as it should be. The London Sinfonietta under Gerry Cornelius gave a confident performance of what must be a very difficult work.

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