Sunday, 29 May 2016

Lulu - Wuppertal Opera - 26 May 2016

Dr Schon (Ralf Lukas) and Lulu (Martina Welschenbach)
Photos: Uwe Stratmann

Lulu – Martina Welschenbach
Dr Schon – Ralf Lukas
Alwa – Arnold Bezuyen
Countess Gewschwitz – Kathrin Goring
Artist/Negro – Johannes Grau
Animal Tamer/Athlete – Christian Tschelebiew
Schigolch – Martin Blasius
Gymnast/Groom – Sandra Borgarts
Prince/Room servant/Marquis – James Wood
Theatre Director/Banker – Michael Adair

Conductor – Toshiyuki Kamioka
Director – Beate Baron
Set design – Elisa Limberg
Costumes – Marie Gerstenberger
Lighting – Fredy Deisenroth
Film - Siegersbuschfilm

With its mixture of realism, fantasy, black humour and tragedy, Berg’s Lulu is not an opera that takes readily to straightforwardly narrative treatment. It is, in the best sense, too contrived for that, with its mirrored forms in music and drama, its larger-than-life characters and knowing self-reflection. The extent to which directors flesh out the story and milieu varies from one production to the next. Beate Baron, for her staging at Wuppertal Opera, takes a cue from the opera’s opening scene, in which the Animal Tamer introduces the characters as wild beasts, by peopling her stage with onlookers from the circus – garish clowns and ‘glamorous assistants’, young girls who in Act I usher each new character on to the scene. Lulu herself is a kind of figurative still centre around whom everyone else circles like hunters – a vision made concrete in the first scene of Act II when the rivals for her attention, the Athlete, the Gymnast, Schigolch, Alwa and her husband Dr Schön, skulk around with hunting rifles. Stuffed leopards furnish the abstract Schön household as if to push home the point. And if I interpreted the Act II film correctly, we see these same characters – running through the Wuppertal woods in evening dress – as pursuers becoming the pursued at the crux of the palindrome.

If Baron can be said to have taken a more feminist line than most of her male colleagues in interpretations of the work, it serves to highlight a kind of battle of the sexes that lies behind the character of Lulu herself, less active ‘femme fatale’ than innocent victim of the attention she attracts in others. Her ‘portrait’, painted by the Artist in the first scene, is a feminist symbol, a downward-pointing triangle on a white background, and her adherents wave a similar flag in her support in the latter stages of the opera. Marie Gerstenberger costumes all the main male admirers in variations on the same pale blue Crimplene-style suit, as if to indicate their common nature. Elisa Limberg’s simple set is a circle of black sand in a containing ring that occasionally revolves. At the start, the props – notably the divan on which Lulu’s lovers habitually die – are held in a huge net above the stage, and one by one ‘released’ during the closed-curtained interludes, as if we are to see the gradual accumulation of the elements that make up the presentation building up over time. Stage pictures are a crucial element, not always static and not always explicable – what, for instance, is the significance of Schön and the supposedly dead Artist wandering around with umbrellas after the latter character’s suicide?

In the early stages of the evening there was a sense of overkill in the visual splintering of ideas and images, more anti-narrative than narrative. But, to give the production its due credit, the feeling tends to fade as the performance progresses, until with Act III we begin to see where everything is leading. The libretto’s Paris salon, where investors in the Jungfrau Railway are at leisure, becomes a sunny resort, with the entire cast spread out on deckchairs in front of the black sand, which has now almost overwhelmed the divan. The dramatic mirror is emphasised in the final scene as each of Lulu’s three lovers returns with angel’s wings – we don’t need to see them as 'new' characters, the Professor or as Negro, until we are perhaps made to believe Jack the Ripper has turned up in the disguise of Dr Schön, as he divests himself of his wings before murdering Lulu. There’s also the suggestion that she is prostituting herself less for the money than for the attempt to regain the companionship she has successively lost over her serial relationships. That becomes her final tragedy.

Musically, Wuppertal Opera has everything to be proud of. The company may currently lack its own ensemble (a state of affairs that I understand is to be rectified under next season’s incoming regime), but its chorus amply supplied the smaller roles, with the others allotted to guests. Martina Welschenbach seems to have modelled her characterisation of the title role on Christine Schäfer’s famously nonchalant way with the role, but to good effect, and her singing throughout was focused and clearly projected. Ralf Lukas’s Dr Schön was powerfully engaging, his text conveyed with the vehemence and perspicacity of an experienced sometime Wotan, and Wagnerian credentials also bore fruit in the fine mixture of Helden- and character tenor that Arnold Bezuyen brought to the part of Alwa. Among the others there was no weak link, from Kathrin Göring’s warmly characterised Geschwitz and Sandra Borgarts’s earthy Gymnast to Johannes Grau’s virile Artist/Negro, Christian Tschelebiew’s visceral Animal Tamer/Athlete, Martin Blasius’s unusually sympathetic Schigolch and James Wood’s flutey Prince/Marquis. Toshiyuki Kamioka, conducting one of his last remaining performances as Wuppertal’s music director and intendant, made much of Berg’s expansion of late Romanticism in his score, which was played with warmth and penetrating character by the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra.

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