DP's blog: Lulu week 5

Posted on Thu, 2013-02-07 11:02 by David Pountney

The pace of this final week at WNO is about twice as fast, or twice as concentrated as with most other opera houses. As Lulu is the opening of this season, there are no performances going on, so instead of rehearsing on stage each morning, then giving way to the change-over for the evening performance, we rehearse twice a day and create the lighting in the third session, with the result that from the first rehearsal with orchestra on Saturday, also the first rehearsal with light, it is only one week to the premiere – effectively 4 working days. In this time massive layers are added – the orchestra throwing up significant new challenges for the cast – a completely different sound world, despite the best efforts of the amazing Stevie who has spent 5 weeks delivering 6 hours of Berg a day on the piano, and going a long way to make that sometimes blunt instrument capture some of the nuances and delicacies of this ultra-refined score.     

At a stroke Lothar has been removed from intimate eyebrow contact with the singers, to the other side of a yawning gulf in which some 80 musicians also now demand his detailed attention. And the contribution of 80 musicians where once there was one means that everything moves at a very slightly different speed, and details which were percussively clear on the piano are now blended in with other colours, and quite different accents, impulses and overtones now take over as the dominant elements. The effect of this sudden transformation must be something akin to the aftermath of a cataract operation, when clarity and colour are suddenly restored to an image formerly blurred and subfusc.  

And what colour! If Berg’s other opera, Wozzeck, has a certain gun-metal grimness about it, Lulu is lit up in lights and touched with the ethereal gossamer magic dispelled by its elfin, spirit-like central character. This star-dust of delicacy is counter-balanced by the presence of deeply emotional, yearning Mahlerian lyricism from the lower, cello and horn based end of the orchestra, which characterises Lulu’s opposite pole, the “man of power” Dr. Schön. It is clear that Berg sees him as a tragic figure, and this in itself is testimony to the great psychological and erotic subtlety of this work. After all, the banal contemporary self-righteous tabloid line on Dr Schön would be:”Press baron pervert and under-age flower girl” – which hardly suggests a tragic dimension, and indeed the only tragic aspect to Mr. Berlusconi’s continuing career is the decline in Italian cultural sensibility that makes it possible. Nonetheless, the superficial  similarities between Dr. Schön and Berlsuconi are inescapable, which makes it all the more fascinating that Berg, through the emotional weight of Schön’s music, succeeds in making it clear that however fragile and ephemeral Lulu may appear to be, this is a battle of equals in which the balance of power lies ultimately with the little girl.

It is an interesting reflection on Berg’s own psychology that the figure of Alwa, Schön’s son, who is in some way a self-portrait of Berg himself – transformed from Wedekind’s “writer” to a “composer” whose explicit connection to Berg are made clear through various self-quotations, does not acquire the same emotional weight. As in Buddenbrooks, one has the feeling that the giant mercantile father figure has been replaced by a degenerate artist, and it is certainly no accident that the two scenes, the end of Act 2 and the beginning if Act 3, where Schön is not present, are the ones where Berg struggles to maintain dramatic tension. This is, however, restored in Spades in the final scene when the brooding, malevolent rage of male guilt is personified by the return from the dead of Schön as Jack the Ripper. This is the tragic dimension – that Schön should end his journey with a squalid and futile crime which may temporarily snuff out the Lulu that he has known, but ultimately only shows up his powerlessness in the face of all the Lulus to come.     

Well, by this time next week it will all have happened, and I will be enjoying my snowdrops in France – also brave spirits in the face of winter’s fury!  

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