Sex, murder, suicide,
prostitution, lesbianism, financial
scandal - Lulu has it all and
more. As a symbol of political corruption
and the decadence of upper class Viennese
society between the wars, it has few
artistic equals. As a night in the theatre,
it is both harrowing and draining, which
is exactly as it should be.
The two stage directors
here, Graham Vick and Sven-Eric Bechtolf,
obviously view this opera very differently.
Bechtolf’s Zürich staging is by
far the most interventionist, and therefore
controversial. As the accompanying documentary
makes clear, he sees Lulu as a victim
at all stages, beginning with child
abuse (made abundantly obvious in aspects
of the staging) and going on through
her ‘career’ with men who use her shamelessly.
For Vick, she is an innocent who gazes
on as events unfold, powerless to help
her own tragic circumstances.
Both are entirely valid
views. Buyers should note that the Zürich
producers opted for the incomplete version
of the score (their house gave the world
premiere in this form in 1937), which
may put some people off. The Cerha completion
has gained a firm foothold in most productions
today, including this Glyndebourne one,
and Vick shows that it does work as
a satisfying whole, even though some
may quibble at ‘inauthentic’ Berg being
used at the end. It is certainly more
appropriate than Bechtolf’s solution.
In earlier days singers would mime to
fragments of Berg’s music, but Bechtolf
has decided to use his own film sequence
to show us Lulu’s fate at the hands
of Jack the Ripper. It is a non-too-subtle
depiction of slaughter, with a huge
carving knife slicing into lumps of
raw meat, and I for one prefer the (now)
more usual theatrical ending, disturbing
enough in its own right.
Bechtolf uses the same
jerky, black-and-white Expressionist
cinema style throughout the production,
including all the interludes. This could
become annoying on repeated viewings,
and is no way to get round the tricky
problem of what to do with those orchestral
interludes. He has decided we should
see a potted resume of the previous
scene (not really necessary) whereas
Vick, ever the theatre man, simply lets
us view the scene change (stage hands
and all) and then patiently waits the
few seconds for the new scene to unfold.
This is all, of course, because of a
preference for open stages these days
(Berg’s instructions are to the second
regarding when the curtain should fall
and rise again) but Vick’s solution
is much more integrated.
Bechtolf is somewhat
obsessed with the idea of child abuse,
and his version of the famous silent
film sequence shows us this in some
prurient detail. He also incorporates
it into the scene where Schön tells
Lulu of her early days and how he ‘rescued’
her. We see on stage a young girl, dressed
like a doll in leotard, clinging on
to Schön’s legs and being dragged
round the stage. The message is rammed
home loud and clear, and is not in keeping
with Berg’s directions. To be sure,
many commentators have read this sort
of Freudian psychological background
into the opera, but I don’t like a stage
director disregarding the composer’s
wishes to incorporate a particularly
controversial aspect of his or her own.
In contrast, Vick does
exactly what Berg asks for in the silent
film sequence. We witness Lulu’s arrest
and imprisonment for Schön’s murder,
and it is obvious from the music Berg
provides for this scene that this is
what is meant to be.
Musically things are
more evenly divided. I have been a great
admirer of Christine Schäfer’s
since her marvellous Strauss/Mozart
disc with Abbado, and this role suits
her talents to perfection. She looks
the part (one can imagine men killing
for her) yet shows true vulnerability.
Vocally she is superb, with Berg’s cruelly
angular lines and exposed coloratura
holding no terrors for her. Laura Aikin
is also excellent, having performed
this part to increasing acclaim, most
recently at the Bastille Opera. Her
voice is silky smooth, if not quite
as alluring as Schäfer’s, and she
is not afraid to do all that Bechtolf
asks of her, including wearing a see-through
body stocking for most of Act 1. It’s
a very convincing central portrayal,
but harder to judge objectively because
of the nature of the production.
Honours are fairly
evenly divided elsewhere, apart from
the other major part of Schön.
Here, Glyndebourne’s aptly named Wolfgang
Schöne shows far greater depth
of characterisation and is vocally stronger.
He must have real stage presence to
make us believe how he has controlled
Lulu all these years. Veteran Alfred
Muff is much blander for Zürich,
looking too old and going through the
motions too easily to be convincing.
The two Countesses are excellent, but
Glyndebourne’s Norman Bailey easily
wins out with his experience in the
role of the old soak Schigolch (injecting
some much-needed, and surely intentional,
humour along the way) and Donald Maxwell
is wonderfully oily and repulsive in
the dual role of Animal Trainer and
In the pit, the two
stage approaches are mirrored in the
orchestral contributions. Welser-Möst
conducts a lean, no-nonsense account
that partners the revisionist, post-modern
production. Andrew Davis gives us a
ripe, full-on Romantic reading, which
in the last analysis is more satisfying.
His conducting is helped by the spacious,
resonant acoustic of the new Glyndebourne
auditorium, and with sumptuous sound
quality, this Lulu is as good
to listen to as it is to watch.
It will be pretty clear
by now which of these two DVDs I consider
most suitable for the library shelf.
Graham Vick may not have set the opera
world alight with revealing insight,
but he is largely faithful to Berg’s
instructions, and with a superbly balanced
cast and the LPO in the pit, we are
unlikely to do much better than this.
My only gripe concerns the packaging.
Having just moaned about NVC’s release
of the Covent Garden Die Fledermaus,
this is no better. It is obviously their
policy to not give booklets, have fewer
cueing points than most, and give their
pathetically scant information in one
paragraph on the box. With a plot as
complex as Lulu, this is not
good enough. TDK are certainly to be
preferred here, with excellent notes
on opera and production, as well as
the half-hour documentary that gives
useful insight into the director’s approach.
Still, at the end of
the day, NVC do give us a three-hour
opera on one disc; by any standards
good value. Given the quality of the
end product, there won’t be too many
causes for complaint.