DP's blog: Lulu week 3

Posted on Tue, 2013-01-29 12:39 by David Pountney

We’ve really got through the whole piece now, and as the mist of undiscovered country clears and the contours are clearer and sharper, the tiny, enigmatic, beguiling, unknowable figure of Lulu tiptoes towards us, getting closer, but never touching. Sometimes she seems flirtatious, sometimes capricious, sometimes cool, indifferent, sometimes childlike, sometimes as old as eternity, but she is never fully unveiled. Instead it is others who are revealed in her mirror, the other characters, the exotic gallery of eccentrics and misfits that gather round her and are, so to speak, the physical equivalent of Leporello’s catalogue. There is the ancient Schigolch, the teen-age schoolboy, the Alpha-primate man of power, the fatuous acrobat, the deluded composer, the affected African Prince and the poisonous, sleazy Marquis.

It occurs to me that meeting Lulu for all these people, and us too probably, is like being in a war: it is an extreme situation which brings out and exaggerates everyone’s inbuilt characteristics. The Marquis becomes even sleazier, standing up and singing a kind of quasi Schubert Lied about his profession: a trafficker in young girls. The acrobat becomes indescribably self-important, treating us all to an aria about the latest pink leotard which he has commissioned for his act. The schoolboy becomes a hero – like someone out of a Boy’s Own Story. The man of power is driven almost insane by the fact that he has discovered this one tiny being who he absolutely cannot control, the composer sublimates her body into a series of musical instructions, and the Countess Geschwitz finally discovers her true destiny – the campaigner for women’s rights – just before that destiny is brutally terminated by Jack the Ripper.

There is a slightly nervous frivolity about these rehearsals, as though everyone is aware that the sensual, erotic force we are dealing with is only just held under control by the etiquette of professional behaviour, and that the piece invites us to tread close to the boundaries of the possible, just as its musical language does. Berg of course ratchets up the tension of this dialogue between the total permissiveness of Lulu herself, who recognizes no rules but is unfailingly true to herself, and the tortured dilemma of all the other characters who know and acknowledge the rules but relentlessly break them, and betray themselves in so doing, by erecting a complex structure of musical rules of his own. This corset of musical formality, which no audience needs to know about or even try to understand, is the cooper’s hoop that holds the whole explosive package together.    

The best thing about it is that our own dear Lulu, Marie Arnet, is still smiling, and that smile – undaunted by a thousand notes and tempo changes and mountains of words to learn – spreads itself around the rehearsal room, and hopefully brings out the best, or maybe sometimes the worst in us, just as Lulu should.