Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Lulu

24 February

I’d gone to Hamburg’s new Lulu vaguely forewarned: this new production from Christoph Marthaler was going to offer a novel solution to the problem of the opera’s unfinished status (if there is indeed still a problem, over 35 years since Friedrich Cerha’s completion was first performed).

Barbara Hannigan as Lulu and Veronika Eberle as 'Eine Violistin' (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

I’d steered clear of reviews, but had heard the evening was to conclude with the Violin Concerto. When the programme made no obvious mention of the fact, though, I wondered if that was indeed going to be the case: I embarked upon the evening in a state of mild confusion.

(Click to enlarge)
What an essay in the programme did explain was that, in this edition (credited to Marthaler, Kent Nagano, assistant conductor Johannes Harniet and dramaturg Malte Ubenauf), the music for Act 3 would be presented to reflect the state of Berg’s unfinished particell score, performed by two pianos (one on stage, the other in the pit) and violin (on stage). The music Berg did actually orchestrate was not included.  

It all served to make an already elusive work even more elusive. It also seemed to be of a piece with Marthaler’s staging, in which all characters themselves seemed to be presented in incomplete form, sketched out in somewhat abstracted terms, delivering lines with studied lack of emotion, moving with stilted, stylised awkwardness.

In a sequence right at the very start, the Theatre Director’s assistant, Auguste, brings each character on, placing them in position. A microphone on a boom is present throughout, while Acts 1 and 3 seem to take place backstage. The natural state of the production, to which it felt as though it was continually trying to return, seemed to be precisely the provisional incompleteness that was communicated in that final act, both musically and in terms of the staging and drama.

The whole show has a undeniable seriousness—which by no means excludes some surreal humorous touches—and an austere, cool beauty to it. Marthaler is unstinting in creating his own theatrical universe of post-war beiges, painstakingly and stylishly realised through Anna Viebrock’s designs and Martin Gebrecht’s precise lighting, which an excellent cast inhabit with total commitment.

Act 1 of Christoph Marthaler's Lulu in Hamburg (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

There’s a sense with Barbara Hannigan’s Lulu that much of what she does here—some repeated backward flips off a table, long stretches of jerky gesturing—she’s been asked to do largely just because she can; and the voice remains more adept at ethereal flights into the stratosphere than projecting mid-range intensity.

She’s still a compelling stage presence, though, and an actress of fearless commitment: her physical submission to Ivan Ludlow’s hunky Athlete, allowing herself to serve as some sort of numb ersatz dumbbell, was both unsettling and strangely impressive. Her totemic, symbolic status in the production was further underlined by the presence of four further female figures, named in the cast list as characters from Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box.

Anne Sofie von Otter (Countess Geschwitz), Marta Świderska (Gymnasiast), Barbara Hannigan (Lulu), Ivan Ludlow (Athlete), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Doktor Schön), Matthias Klink (Matthias Klink) (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

Anne Sofie von Otter was a buttoned-up, glamorous and moving Countess Geschwitz, singing with considerable heft as well as the trademark class. Jochen Schmeckenbecker was a gruff, forceful Alwa, and Matthias Klink made a strong impression as Alwa. In the other roles, Sergei Leiferkus’s coal-toned, darkly comic Schigolch deserves special mention.   

Nagano conducted with a clear-sighted sense of purpose. He’s not one to imbue a score such as this with much warmth, however, and his interpretation, like Marthalar’s staging, stayed relatively cool. The conductor seemed most fired up when inspired by Veronika Eberle’s terrific playing—as soloist in the concerto, and the vaguely-defined ‘Eine Violinistin’ in the disintegrating drama—in the final 25 minutes.

And the edition? It seemed like an interesting experiment, but one that stretches a long evening out to a length, with two intervals, of over four hours. To have the drama unravel just at the stage when one’s used to have it tighten and intensify, to leave just a resurrected Lulu and her four companions, gesturing forlornly as the Violin Concerto came to its rapt conclusion, was memorable. It was intriguing, too, to have a thematic link drawn between that work, written in memory of the ‘angel’ Manon Gropius, and the protagonist of the opera whose composition was broken off for Berg to complete his commission.  

I wouldn't say it was a satisfying solution to the problem that Nagano and Marthaler had created for themselves. But I doubt, to be honest, that that was what they were setting out to achieve. 

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