While the entry of Lulu into the operatic repertoire was a matter of time, its re-emergence as a two-act torso has been more unexpected. The reasons are largely speculative, though Zurich, host to the première of the unfinished work in 1937, can claim a degree of authenticity for the present staging. Apparently director Sven-Eric Bechtolf knew nothing of the opera beforehand: that is not in itself a problem, as creating an interpretative context from scratch can lead to a radical reappraisal. It can also lead to a morass of dramatic clichés – which, sadly, is what happens here.
The issue of child abuse is not new to opera production (as fans of Hänsel und Gretel will know), and it can be inferred directly from Wedekind’s plays. Berg’s opera, however, is no more about child abuse per se than it is about the femme fatale, bourgeois excess or any other factor motivating the work at a conceptual rather than dramatic level. Thus the appearance of a mute, other-worldly girl during Lulu’s confrontations with Dr Schön – ostensibly representing the age at which abuse stunted her emotional development, but a crude and simplistic device in terms of the drama being played out on stage.
Similarly, the replacement of Act 2’s filmic interlude with a psychological depiction of child abuse: designed, no doubt, to open out the drama into another dimension – but, in context, having all the provocative insight of a soft-porn movie. Perhaps Bechtolf’s approach would have had greater conviction but for the risible set and costume designs. The action takes place within what looks to be an art deco department store, Lulu’s portrait rendered as an ‘enhanced’ dummy of perspex modules. Male characters are made-up to look like chorus-line extras from Cabaret, giving the production a camp Expressionist feel at odds with its striving for emotional truth.
This is a pity, as the performance is often excellent. Laura Aikin, more a character-singer such as Anja Silja than one with the stylistic poise of Christine Schäfer, is a Lulu musically accurate and vocally alluring – dispatching the most demanding passages with impressive control. Peter Straka finds compassion behind Alwa’s indolence, Cornelia Kallisch is a warmly uncomprehending Geschwitz, and Steve Davislim manages the Painter’s awkward tessitura with comparative ease. Conversely, Alfred Muff is a singularly dreary Schön, barking out the part with little heed as to dynamics or phrasing, while Guido Götzen’s Schigolch is a wheelchair-bound cyborg of no emotional resonance. Franz Welser-Möst gets generally persuasive playing from his Zurich forces, though his tendency to slow up at key musical and dramatic points – such as the Act 1 interlude and Lulu’s Act 2 ‘Lied’ – implies a sectional approach which detracts from the music’s fluid and organic underlying progress.
The widescreen picture format has both clarity and realism, while the stereo sound has a believable stage spread. Subtitles are included in five European languages. Rainer E Moritz’s documentary elaborates on the thinking behind the production and the merits of staging the unfinished opera to a greater if far from convincing degree. Those wanting the opera on DVD are advised to wait until Graham Vick’s Glyndebourne production (listed above on VHS) is made available: hardly revelatory as a staging, admittedly, but doing justice to Berg’s opera in a way to which Bechtholf’s conception never comes close.