A stark descent from grace

Lulu

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

ALBAN Berg's Lulu isn't going to be everybody's cup of tea. Its music is harsh, complex and demanding. There are no pretty tunes likely to feature on an opera greatest hits album here.

And the story is equally uncompromising as we follow Lulu's dramatic journey from rich socialite to destitute prostitute. It is a brutal journey, littered with betrayals, death, deception and lust with everyone tainted to some measure.

This Welsh National Opera production is equally daring. Directed by David Pountney and designed by Johan Engels, all of the action is concentrated into the centre by a giant cage of a stage.  

Right from the beginning when the Animal Tamer Master of Ceremonies drags a corpse-like Lulu before the audience we know we are watching a spectacle. With characters' faces hidden by intricate animal heads there is a sense of being a bystander watching a show, a circus, a heightened reality.

There are hints of surrealism throughout the production from the Dada-inspired sculptures to Magritte like umbrella figures. And, as animal heads change, costumes take on rainbow hues and faces are painted in clown-like masks, the figures and action becomes ever more bizarre.

And yet at the centre are some very human characters playing out some very human emotions. Marie Arnet is very powerful as Lulu. She succeeds in being sensuous at the same time as totally cold, tempting at the same time as repelling and cunning while also having a touch of the naïve about her.

Everyone is drawn to her like a moth to a flame and everyone who gets too close – or in fact gets even remotely close - risks being burnt.

Although Paul Carey Jones was taking on the role of Dr Schon at short notice in Birmingham there was no hint of uncertainty in his performance as the doctor who is reduced from powerful to powerless by Lulu's tricks.

Peter Hoare balances gullibility with guile as his son Alwa while Natascha Petrinsky is the perfect foil to Lulu – totally loyal right through to the end.

There is plenty of dark humour here and the production ensures there are also some lighter moments, not least from Julian Close as the infatuated Acrobat and Anitra Blaxhall as the love-struck Student.

But at no point do WNO shy away from the stark reality of Lulu's fate – with the final scene stunning in its simplicity and cruelty.

Conducted by Lothar Koenigs, the orchestra rise to the challenge of Berg's score. Lulu may not be everyone's cup of tea but this production certainly shows how imaginatively it can be staged.

Diane Parkes 

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