Tuesday 9 June 2009

More sinned against than sinning

That’s increasingly how I feel about Wedekind’s and Berg’s Lulu (infinitely various icon of the silent screen Louise Brooks plays her above in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box). All too well acquainted with child slavery of various kinds, Lulu has grown up pawed over by men, most of them would-be-respectable middle-class and middle-aged. Little wonder if she's learned how to manipulate her innate sexual charms, and hardly surprising that she should be destroyed by the price set on those charms. L'argent fait tout. Maybe she’s a little more culpable than Nabokov’s equally misrepresented Lolita, a victim of wishful thinking on the part of pervy Humbert Humbert. Still, I reckon that, to adapt Shakespeare’s Othello, she is ‘not naturally vampish, but being wrought, perplex’d in the extreme’.

I’ve seen two operatic Lulus who were too old and too whorish: the fleshly Mrs. Gotz Friedrich, Karan Armstrong, when the Royal Opera first staged Cerha’s completion of Berg’s unfinished work, and Lisa Saffer in Richard Jones’s otherwise startling ENO production. I’ve also seen two who came close to the ideal: Christine Schafer for Graham Vick at Glyndebourne, and now Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz in Christof Loy’s new production at Covent Garden.

The publicity shot shows Eichenholz playing sultry; as Lulu, she is anything but. Very much at first the wide-eyed waif later to be remembered nostalgically by her doting Countess Geschwitz, she can seem drained and inert one moment, disturbingly playful the next. Her quicksilver coloratura is soft-grained, but she's just about capable of upping the volume and the intensity for the showgirl petulance which flares from time to time. She undergoes the change to society hostess convincingly, and looks suitably appalling as a London prostitute, still wearing the bow-tie and braces of the boy servant with whom she’s changed clothes in the previous scene.

Loy’s Lulu is no easy ride, nor is it intended to be. Herbert Murauer’s design strips the set of all props except a chair, a semi-transparent screen behind which Lulu reluctantly acts out her cabaret, a gun, a handful of banknotes, a bunch of white roses (Geschwitz's) and a few costume changes. The stage picture is all blacks, whites and greys, sometimes with a harsh light making it even harder to watch, and liable to give you a headache in quite a different way from Anish Kapoor's throbbing and inappropriately claustrophobic mise en scene for Glyndebourne's Idomeneo, which did make me feel ill.

Expect no ‘sofa on which your father bled to death’ – ‘isn’t this where your father…’ reads the supertitle - no paper and pen for Schon to write what Lulu tells him, no film to accompany that gut-wrenching palindromic interlude which goes widdershins here

and no portrait of ‘Eva’ as Pierrot. This last is hauntingly substituted by a circle of white light, crucial at the end of the opera when Loy, like Jones (and Wedekind in one of his versions), spares Geschwitz Jack the Ripper’s knife and lets the only character with anything like a normal heart - yes, the lesbian - live on in the follow-spot.

Loy goes for what is certainly there in the piece, the weird mix between realism and fantasy. Corpses get up and walk off at the end of scenes, so it seems inevitable that the men who meet their end at Lulu’s hands should come back as themselves to be her London clients in the final scene. On the other hand, the ernst-Deutsch element diminishes the conversation-piece wit which can sometimes make me think I’m watching Strauss’s Capriccio and the bedroom farce element of all the would-be lovers hiding in Schon’s house is lost.

It worried me, too, from my close and comfortable seat, that the stark concentration on facial expression and body language might be lost on folk further away from the stage. The close-ups of a film could do it the world of good – just like Vick’s Glyndebourne production, which didn’t involve me in the theatre but came alive when we followed the DVD in six classes at the City Lit (the students loved it, by the way).

Schafer, the Lulu then, has a subtle, gamine beauty made for close-ups. So, I suspect, does Eichenholz. Alas, there's no chance of this Lulu reaching the Royal Opera's big screen...

As at Glyndebourne, the ensemble here is excellent, and that has as much to do with Loy’s intense work on relationships as it does with the musical preparation. A newly trim Jennifer Larmore graces Geschwitz with fashion-model looks and elegant phrases (only the last, big one of ‘Lulu, mein Engel’ is a bit much for her). And if ‘well you would, wouldn’t you’ is your response to my saying that freund Peter Rose’s Animal Trainer/Rodrigo is up there on the top rung with the ladies and Michael Volle’s riven Dr Schon, well, go hear for yourself. I reckon Peter’s the equal for Sprechstimme of Barbara Sukowa (so stunning in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire); listen out for the way he takes the voice up when he speak-sings of making Lulu ‘the most breath-taking female acrobat of our era’.

What of Pappano, seen here in this EMI photo by Sheila Rock?

As with Gardner for Grimes, he really ought to have first mention. His earlier way with Wozzeck led me to hope that this, too, would be Debussy-subtle and sensual as well as feral when necessary, and that’s the case. It never becomes over-lush; Pappano’s painstaking balances make sure that all the themes in their myriad forms peep through the jungle, the spider-web of sound, whatever you care to call it. The more I hear the score, the more I come away singing – especially one of Lulu’s most telling musical attributes, a neoclassical, dancy turn of phrase that pops up all over the place. Feel-good, however, it ain’t.

So how about some snaps of Herr Rose off duty, and in more than black and white, for light relief? Chez nous to eat, drink and play cards a couple of Sundays ago, he was mellow enough by the end of the evening to feign absorption in my copy of George Perle’s Lulu study…

…consented to play the Animal Trainer to the usually neglected domestic menagerie…

…and even gave his approval for these pictures to appear here. I hope he doesn’t change his mind. Good news: he’s down to play his first Falstaff in Seattle, no doubt on the strength of his Ochs, and well deserved.

'Like rich and gorgeous clothing on the body of a syphilitic whore’ was the appropriately Wedekindish image my other half applied to the 1943 German film epic Munchhausen.

Would we say that if we didn’t know that Goebbels allocated five million Reichsmarks to make this a showcase of German cinema, that the Venice where they filmed a sumptuous regatta was under Mussolini’s control, and that SS men were drafted in as extras for Catherine the Great’s banquet because they could be trusted not to run off with the invaluable Meissen taken from a top museum? Might we not, on the other hand, be a bit surprised by the soft-porn naked ladies in the harem scene?

Well, trying to take it on its own merits, I found it stodgy: there’s not an ounce of effortless wit and no charm in any of the characters. As with any high-budget film, no amount of fine costumes, special effects, top actors and lavish filming can conceal pedestrian direction. But it certainly adds an extra sense of Nero fiddling while Rome burns to think this was shot in the early 1940s. No point, though, in deducing a subtext in the bloodthirsty foreign characters or a redeeming, civilizing idyll in the Baron's implausible adventures. It is what it is, a fantastical fable, and, as such, in need of a lighter touch.

Yesterday was a dark one for Europe. Fellow music blogger Jessica Duchen quoted the whole of Yeats’s The Second Coming. Indeed, ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’. But I’m just a fraction more optimistic that the left will rally in a couple of years – it has to - and some balance may be restored (‘for nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent’). Can’t help but be angry with Labour, though, for never properly explaining why we're 'in Europe' to the British public.

Bozhe moy, I MUST add this footnote (Tuesday evening). All I caught of the Cardiff Singer of the World tonight was the last competitor, but that was enough. OK, so Yekaterina - I insist on the 'y', as I did for 'Yevgeny' - Shcherbachenko may have done a few funny things in a fairly classy 'Come scoglio', but she WAS Tatyana (what they let us see of the Letter Scene, anyway), just as Prokina was - but with better top notes. Utterly convincing as a lovelorn adolescent, but brings the experience of her 32 years. She could do the final scene, too. No surprise to learn she's singing the role for the Bolshoy. What a wonderful reward for an afternoon spent polishing notes on Tchaikovsky songs.


jondrytay said...

Interesting stuff on 'Lulu'- I have the old Stratas/Boulez recording somewhere but somewhat to my shame I've never seen it, and don't listen to it much.

And yes, the election was depressing- but note that the BNP gained the seat in the NW despite getting fewer votes than last time. So the problem is not people changing their votes, but staying at home. I'm optimistic enough to think that wouldn't happen at a general election.

David said...

Good to hear from you, Jon, and you did a stylish job on the ENO Cosi (the only effect of which, as I've said, was that I decided not to go and see it).

I remember seeing the Paris Lulu premiere on the telly (in my teens?)- Chereau's production pretty wonderful, I remember, even if Stratas wasn't vocally quite right. And, no, one wouldn't sit down and listen, not without a score or while doing the ironing at any rate.

You're right about the Euroelections: it was the turn-out that was at fault. Clearly, though, the voters aren't that worried about the morality of expenses, otherwise UKIP with its jailbirds and rogues wouldn't have done so well.

The LondonJazz site said...

So pleased to have discovered this blog. A cut above.

David said...

Thanks, Sebastian (if I may). Now I'll try and get a bit more jazz-oriented, note your strongest recommendations and take the occasional plunge.

(Sorry - the deleted message was much the same, but ungrammatical).