Last weekend had my first live experience of Welsh National Opera and I am delighted to report back I was left with the impression that this may be the finest regional company in the UK. Their programming under the directorship of David Pountney has been inspired and was intrigued by the pairing of his brand new staging for Lulu and his 1980 production for the Cunning Little Vixen. His style has evolved over the years but there is the unmistakable stamp of his touch and the total focus on the singers.
On the Saturday night seeing my first live Lulu was all too exciting and being at front row and getting the full blast of this truly outstanding orchestra it was a treat for the senses. The conducting of Lothar Koenigs was confident and brought out the underlying lyricism of the score without losing the steely edge that Berg imparted on it. The staging has a paired down freshness that makes a problematic work like Lulu look effortless. The use of colour for each of the scenes was distinctive and very conspicuous adding a layer of warmth but also a sense of separation between scenes .
The set is made up of a central round enclosure in untreated, gleaming metal sections that opens up for Act Two to make space for the wonderfully fleshy bed that Lulu and Alwa make love before they flee to Paris. For the other two Acts the enclosure remains closed and flanked by movable platforms that add entrances for the singers and multiple levels. The central core of the enclosure remains initially empty till a spiral staircase descends creating a new stage dynamic. Possibly the most effective use of it, is when the frosted tube enclosing the lower part of the metal cylinder reaches the floor and becomes the room that Lulu’s final killing by Jack the Ripper takes place. With Marie Arnet screaming a haunted nein before her blood splattered naked body rests again the semi transparent wall. A finale chilling and gruesome enough to make one take notice. All of this is overseen by a disturbing Hans Bellmer inspired sculpture made out of just legs featuring as the stand in for Lulu’s portrait and contributed to the overall surreal look. The industrial look of the set makes overt reference to the aesthetic of Oskar Schlemmer and his designs for the Bauhaus, a contemporary of Berg and a hugely influential figure in the world of avant-garde theatre. If ever there was a production that felt that it evokes Berg’s own times this is the one.
The performances overall were excellent, with a towering interpretation by Marie Arnet who acted the sexy siren and downtrodden prostitute with equal conviction. Her singing remaining exemplary throughout, without any sign of stress or discomfort. There are not many singers that can make Lulu resonate with humanity and retain that demimonde edge like Arnet and this being her role debut (at fairly short notice since she replaced the previously advertised Olga Pasichnyk) it was a complete triumph. From the rest of the cast Patricia Orr, Alan Oke, Natascha Petrinsky and Peter Hoare were the stand outs. All vocally assured and totally inhabiting the characters the detailed direction bestowed upon them. Particularly Natascha Petrinsky’s Duchess Geschwitz nearly stole the show with her alluring lesbianism and dominating stage presence. Pountney’s direction created a deeply hedonistic staging making this Lulu of international importance. He added a carnivalesque atmosphere (with some extraordinary animal heads ) and also some dark theatricality (with each dead protagonist having a dummy double that gets hoisted up the set using meat hooks) but above all he stresses the interaction between characters making this a very well resolved example of this unfinished modernist masterpiece.
Pountney’s direction for the Cunning Little Vixen is equally compelling, with much bouncy fun to be had and a truly adorable set, shaped like rolling hills, allowing for much slapstick comedy to take place. The excellent use of the suspended tree branches and three secondary characters added a touch of dynamism that made it feel very fresh (considering it was premiered in 1980!). The costumes by Maria Bjørnson were good enough to allude to the different animals (the mosquito, chickens and cockerel being particularly fine examples) but without making the production look excessively cartoony and contrived. The projection of anthropomorphism by Janacek on the Vixen and the animals around her is usually undermined by overt mimicking of the animals’ appearance at the expense of the expression and the tension between singer and costume. The production is sang in a rather entertaining English translation making the jokes flow and the audience reaction more immediate. The Vixen of Sophie Bevan was the most enchantingly glorious creature on stage, beaming personality and displaying a great sense of comic timing. Julian Boyce’s scruffy, predatory dog was the funniest thing on stage. Sarah Castle’s Fox was perky and despite a couple of times sounding shrill, a great addition with her outgoing enthusiasm. From the “grown up roles” Alan Oke was a bravura schoolmaster with a deliciously sharp temper.
The orchestra played a majestic account of the score finding a mid-point between glorious romantic tutti and much more incisive and playful incidental material. The glistening strings added sunshine to a windswept day in Cardiff, which is no mean feat. After seeing this production I can now agree to the classic status of the staging, it both draws from all our childhoods and it also beguiles with its lightness and unapologetically fun outlook. Lets hope that it will continue to live on and to entertain many more people.
On the surface it may seem an odd accident of programming to have these two operas performed in the same themed season (with addition of Madama Butterfly) but it was very useful to read David Pountney’s essay in the programme and I am delighted that the WNO has shared it on their website, go on have a read. If the above is not too obvious already, I was thoroughly impressed by the WNO and already started making plans to visit in the winter for their three Donizetti queens which should be a supreme, unmissable, operatic over-indulgence. If you are in the route of their extensive tour do not hesitate to book, both Lulu and Vixen are two productions that any of the London Houses would be delighted to claim as their own. They are imaginative, intelligent and above all serve the work they present with respect and have something to say.
The performance of Lulu from the 23rd of February I’m waxing lyrical about will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 25th of May at 6pm, tune in!
Curtain Call Video
WNO’s Guide to Lulu