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Dazzling Femme Fatale

directed by Monique Wagemakers
conducted by Riccardo Frizza
Gran Teatre del Liceu

Just who is Lulu?  Frank Wedekind’s femme fatale needs a re-think if she is to work for today’s enlightened viewer – at least, so think many contemporary stage directors. For his recent Munich production, director Dmitri Tcherniakov gave audiences Lulu as a borderliner, victim of her own emotional damage.


In Amsterdam, William Kentridge sees no such need for re-assessment.  He takes the role of Lulu’s unnamed second husband, the painter, and loses himself in the images the short-lived artist might have made.  The Dutch National Opera’s recent production of Lulu is a dazzling act of visual art, a pictorial reflection on Alban Berg’s masterpiece (here in Friedrich Cerha’s completion) that will travel far.


Literally. This co-production with the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera was conceived from the start as an international tour de force.  Kentridge lavished two and a half years on Lulu, and it is very much his brainchild.


Unsurprisingly, Kentridge’s approach to the piece is more illustrative than dramaturgical.  Within the first thirty minutes, he has opened a huge box of visual tricks, from depicting the “animals” of the prelude’s menagerie as Berg’s contemporaries to his trademark animations with torn scraps of paper over sheets of printed writing. Words, time, obsession, possession, reflection - Kentridge weaves in references to all of them, always with careful reference to the details of the musical score.


Fabio Luisi was to have conducted this production, but was forced for private reasons to cancel. Just over a fortnight before opening night, Lothar Zagrosek took over. Perhaps Luisi would have drawn more plush sounds from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but Zagrosek achieves miracles of transparency and detail, and creates his own kind of lucid beauty.  This is a Lulu of superlative musical coherence, its lyricism tenderly laid bare.


An excellent cast helps.  Mojca Erdmann’s Lulu, though seldom fully dressed, is never especially erotic, but she hits every note bang in the middle, with a fragile sweetness in the upper registers that has its own narcotic impact. Daniel Brenna is an impassioned, virile Alwa, Franz Grundheber an uncharacteristically solid and self-assured Schigolch, with none of the seediness the character usually exudes. That he is 77 years old is impossible to believe when you see and hear him on stage.  Johan Reuter is a sonorous, tormented Dr Schön, while Jennifer Larmore makes a mild-mannered Gräfin Geschwitz whose resolve is a little hard to follow.


What Kentridge does not really do is to direct.  His characters are arranged on the stage in accord with the libretto, but we are not brought closer to them, any more than we are illuminated as to the nature of Lulu herself.  If she is more than a femme fatale, more than the surface onto which the men on her life project their desires, more than the countless images made of her, repeated until they become worthless scrap paper, Kentridge does not seem particularly interested.


His absorption remains with the surface of the material. And what a dazzling surface it is. For Kentridge fans and art-lovers, this Lulu is a four-hour treat.  For devotees of Alban Berg, it is a satisfying evening. Only those hoping for new insights into a new insights into an old piece may go home somewhat disappointed.


Desmond Chewyn


photos | ©A Bofill

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