by Rachel Beaumont

latest archive about contact

Poor old Berg: Lulu at the Hamburgische Staatsoper

Hamburgische Staatsoper
21 February 2017
Loge 1, Reihe 2 Platz 1, €31

There are some operas for which I wish we felt more comfortable in making significant edits to the authoritative text. Cerha's completion of Berg's Lulu is not one of them. Therefore, despite an astonishing central performance from Barbara Hannigan and a production with some interesting ideas, this performance of Lulu left me frustrated and resentful.

I've not seen Berg's autograph scores so I'm only going on second-hand knowledge here. But I've understood for a long time that the completion of Lulu was a relatively straightforward task. Not to undermine Cerha's work – I'm sure it was a considerable undertaking that could only have been managed by someone of Cerha's experience and expertise. Still, everything I've read states that Berg left Act III in a four-stave score with some orchestration markings. This, in addition to the Act III material in the Lulu Suite, which I believe was written entirely by Berg, suggests that the Cerha Act III can be reasonably expected to run close to what Berg would have written had he lived.

In this context – very different from, say, Turandot or Les Contes d'Hoffmann or Mozart's Requiem – I don't understand how conductor Kent Nagano could have felt it was justifiable to commission a new completion of Act III that discards a lot of wonderful music and which is orchestrated for two pianos and solo violin with the odd solo instrument interjection. What a waste of the superb orchestra sitting in the pit; what an appalling extravagance, where more work and greater expense is put behind an enterprise that undermines a magnificent opera.

So by the end of Act III I was already annoyed, and perhaps in no position to give fair hearing to this production's other innovation: at the end of the opera, the performance in toto of Berg's Violin Concerto, complete with violinist and full orchestra. But then, who is going to be in that position, having heard a long and psychologically punishing work, with a devastating finale? Let alone in the etiolated version we had heard, and presented in Christoph Marthaler's distancing, purposefully bloodless production.

The argument for including the Violin Concerto is that this was the piece for which Berg abandoned Lulu and therefore the reason we have no final version of the opera from the composer's hand. Interesting enough historically, but of course, to my mind, totally insufficient justification in practice. Both Lulu and the Violin Concerto are exquisitely constructed works with highly distinctive aural identities. Lulu ends the way it does because this is the way the whole piece has been written – even if the autograph tells a different story, which I don't think it does, this is how it sounds. The musical and dramatic inevitability of its close engender the opera's power. To my ears there is nothing but the most superficial overlap between the music material of Lulu and that of the Concerto and so it can make no sense when appended as it is here. Plus, it is inevitably a lesser work – still wonderful, but what can compare to Lulu? So I had the experience of longing this great music to end: a terrible disservice to the Concerto and to the opera.

And a disservice also to Hannigan. I assume she wanted to perform in this production because of its unusual approach to the text, and I hope it gave her more satisfaction than it did me. It probably did. But from my perspective her extraordinary performance was sidelined in Marthaler's production. At various points through the production she is called to sing this notoriously difficult role while jogging on the spot, while turning somersaults, while being dangled upside down. She pulls it off with aplomb, performing with a tireless accuracy matched by no other performer of the role. Her voice gorgeously capitalizes on all the music's sensuousness, even though Marthaler's focus on alienation means she's almost never within arm's reach of her fellow singers. In short, she gives a definitive performance, sounding even better than her role debut in Brussels in 2012. After this magnificent achievement, she should not have to mime her way through the Violin Concerto.

I've only seen one thing of Marthaler's before now, his 'Liederabend' King Size, which toured to the Linbury Studio Theatre in 2015. His Lulu shares that show's focus on how difficult it is to connect to other people – but, inevitably given the source material, without the lightness of touch and gentle comedy. I think this is a more than valid reading of Lulu, but it can't be denied that it sucks the life out of it (a stark contrast to Krzysztof Warlikowski's messy, sordid, deliriously intense production for La Monnaie). With so little interaction between the characters, as well, I can only assume the story would be completely lost if you didn't already know it (made worse by Act III's heavy cuts). Marthaler has an intriguing but I think wrong-footed idea of introducing a spoken section to explain how Lulu escapes from prison (intriguing in the context of his disinterest elsewhere in storytelling; wrong-footed because it disrupts the opera's very explicit palindromic structure). No doubt I would have got more from it had I any sympathy with his other changes to the text.

The orchestra, when it was playing, played well (although there was yet another bizarre decision to bring the Act II offstage band into the pit – guys: I feel sure Berg would have written it differently if he'd wanted it in the pit). Violinist Veronika Eberle gave a strong if unwelcome performance of the Concerto. Hannigan's fellow singers, though including some excellent voices, sadly on the whole did not acquit themselves well, making frequent recourse to the prompt box (!) or missing/bottling notes.

Lulu obviously is difficult to stage. There has not been a perfect production (though I think Graham Vick's 1996 staging for Glyndebourne comes close), and I hope directors will continue to experiment with and investigate this complex and rich work. But the score is an immensely powerful, important statement, and we should treasure that.

No comments yet.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

<< A bargain at €700 million: Beethoven at Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie

Play it again, Sam: Aimard in the 'Emperor' and Tansy Davies's Concerto for Four Horns at the Southbank Centre >>