Welsh National Opera’s new Lulu is a free-spirited, creatively challenging production of immense power and an evening that has lingered in the memory, celebrating David Pountney’s role as Chief Executive and Artistic Director of WNO. This is a production which affirms WNO’s ability to shock, titillate and create impact and charm with intelligent glamour. The Free Spirit theme unites WNO’s Spring 2013 season in the form of Lulu, Cunning Little Vixen and Madama Butterfly and on the opening night of Lulu there was much anticipation for this new production, sealing director Pountney’s somewhat maturing, yet contemporary, enfant terrible status.
Pountney has created a world of depravity, sexual tension and one that captivates in its stark Cirque de Soleil style a powerful, distinctive vision of Lulu’s world, spiralling into the depths of her humanity. She is a wild animal, caged by her life. The set is hard metal, a glamorous scaffold for the characters to play out their tawdry excesses and moribund storytelling. The centrepiece of the metal framework is a sinuous spiral staircase, and entrances and exits ebb and flow along varying levels within the enormous metal scaffold, resembling a circus ring and a cage – both strong metaphors for Lulu’s world. All the action is caged or enhanced by this distinctive framework for the storytelling of Lulu’s debauched life. Lulu’s victims are ceremoniously processed out of the framework while their exact replicas as eerie mannequins are then hung from satanic fork-like hooks within the scaffold/cage. Act II has a super-sized bed shaped from body parts – or indeed from my view in the stalls, it was a bed of bosoms and enormous nipples tantalizing the Countess Geschwitz and Lulu to languish suggestively.
This may sound somewhat gratuitous and bordering on Dali-esque surrealism, but it seems to fit in poetically with the over-sized metal framework and more importantly, with the overwhelming beauty of the score and the monumental playing of the WNO Orchestra. And that is one major plus for this production; the score is paramount. At no point does Pountney overindulge and create gratuitous over-sexed scenes. He allows the glorious score to reign supreme. His Lulu is a sexual predator of superbly cold indifference, gaining her strength and decline from what lies beneath in the music. This intelligence gives her an immensely powerful sheen of allure and sexuality from the very beginning. It came as a great relief to me that Pountney has created a world of tawdry, base levels of humanity without feeling the need to force the imagery further and self-gratify and take a self-indulgent journey through Berg. This is surely Pountney’s greatest strength – he has such intelligent musical empathy and lets the music speak and create. He has created a Lulu of vast significance here. Who can forget the primary colours, strong shapes and shimmering flow of Act I and II, to be contrasted by the grim, overcast shadowy world of Lulu’s prostitution in Act III. Starkly, this is contrasted by the beauty of the innocent love and trust she deeply feels for Jack the Ripper, before he slays her, Hitchcock style.
Lulu is performed and inhabited by the soprano Marie Arnet. This is a tour de force of bravura coloratura and dramatic vocal shape, but utterly outstanding in its portrayal of Lulu’s sensuality without resorting to obvious Carmen-esque posturing and pouting. It is her seeming indifference to the men around her that makes her tantalizingly attractive - a fearsomely difficult characterisation to achieve, even without the incomparable complexities of Berg’s score. However, it needs to be remembered that remarkably, Arnet only accepted this role in November; her intricate preparation and interpretation of this staggeringly exhausting role is testament to her artistry. Marie Arnet’s Lulu is a classy vocal and dramatic phenomenon. She is brave in her approach to the demands of this exhausting role, and fearless in taking vocal risks – all of which pay off ceaselessly to create a Lulu of international importance. She is fearless also in creating the theatrical nature of this physical role – by peeling off her clothing in her scene with Alwa in Act II she can do no more to reflect her characterisation’s totality. Brave and sensual, fearsome and ultimately pitiful, Arnet has utterly impressive colour and commitment to Pountney’s vision of depravity, sexuality and symmetry. This portrayal inhabits Lulu with staggering physicality and vocal style and grip.
Alwa is sung by the characterful British tenor Peter Hoare, and despite a diminutive presence, his fiendish accuracy and edgy commitment gives the role a physicality and presence. He is particularly attractive in his white tails with a gorgeous white rabbit head, and he maintains intense chemistry with Lulu throughout. Richard Angas is a finely shaped Animal Tamer and creates a repellent Schigolch of immense stature and tawdry colour. Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper is beautifully crafted by Ashley Holland, – his final scene as The Ripper had stillness, persuasion and immense vocal colour of persuasion and darkness. The major voice to emerge from this production is that of Natascha Petrinsky as the Countess Geschwitz. What a strikingly beautiful presence she has, with a voice like Guinness – darkly creamy and of intoxicating allure. Her final words are beautifully sung, adding to the sympathy we feel for the stabbed Lulu pressed against the screen behind her. A personal favourite of mine during the evening was the loose physical presence of Mark Le Brocq as The Artist/Negro. Particularly fetching in his Artist’s lime green robe and beret, he proceeded to steal a few minutes of the production with his American Gigolo negro dancing!
The entire production has immense structure and empathy with Berg’s music and the Act III zippy realisation by Eberhard Kloke. The magnificent, vibrant and passionate playing of the WNO Orchestra under Lothar Koenigs was surely a definitive interpretation of the complex intricacies of the demanding score. I don’t think I have ever heard so many colours emerge from that orchestral pit and the success of this production starts from this strong foundation. The hard-edged set-design by Johann Engels and the creativity of Marie Jeanne Lecca’s costumes, combined with the magical experience of Mark Jonathan’s lighting design ensures that Pountney’s vision is crafted and enhanced by individuals at the top of their game.
This is a remarkable show; more of an all encompassing show than an opera; who can forget the array of beautifully shaped animal heads glistening and glittering in the debauched downward spiral of Lulu? Not an obvious image but one that fits into the burlesque, circus of life in this Pountney extravaganza. After Cardiff, WNO will be taking this fantastic new production to Southampton, Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Birmingham and Llandudno – don’t miss it!
Bethan Dudley Fryar
Photographs © Clive Barda