A set of transparent plexiglass chambers functions effectively as the space inside Lulu’s head. It’s mostly empty, with the singers left to do their job front and centre, but people come and go, including a cast of extra couples who fill the entr’acte in Act 1 with kisses (readers of Angela Carter will be reminded of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) and then, in the palindromic interlude of Act 2, with abuse.
So, like the Painter’s outline sketch of Lulu, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s design sees right through Lulu, and finds at her heart an old-fashioned love for Dr Schön that will never die. Their relationship is the most real, the most demonstrably physical thing about this staging of intermittent insights, pretensions, banalities and longueurs. If Tcherniakov had faith in one of the opera’s more dry and implausible stretches, while the Acrobat banters away time waiting for Lulu, he wouldn’t supply an extended custard-pie gag – sourced from one of Munich’s classiest Konditorei, I’m sure – which eventually and literally falls flat.
So does the party scene in Act 3, largely reduced to mime, though here the brilliance of Kirill Petrenko’s conducting works against itself. Having pulled out the Straussian savagery and sinuous beauty of the score in the first two acts, he is not the first conductor to be thwarted by congested textures and elements of pastiche in Cerha’s completion of the third. Without underplaying the jazz elements or exotic orchestral touches such as the persistent alarm-bell vibraphone, he integrates them smoothly – an incidental pleasure of the transparent set is supplied by the pit monitors at the back of the stage – within a sumptuously played vision of the piece that doesn’t stint on a Mahlerian weight of expression at points such as the letter-scene climax to Act 1, but also offers sympathetic support to a vocally strong cast of singers who are sometimes left by Tcherniakov to the devices of half-hearted naturalism.
Much then depends on Marlis Petersen and Bo Skovhus. They both turn in tremendous performances. Rather than a creature of otherworldly enchantment or manufactured allure such as Patricia Petibon (DG, 2/12), Petersen is a fearlessly cantabile Lulu in the tradition of Teresa Stratas, one who can fashion a line pitched above the stave as a come-on and not a circus act. Skovhus entwines Dr Schön and Jack as two strands of the same rope, singing with tireless clarity and virility even while Lulu sits on his face. It’s rare to find a Dr Schön who is Lulu’s worthy lover and nemesis; they would make a gripping Wozzeck and Marie together.
Alwa is reduced to an ardent but incidental figure, and sung by Matthias Klink as a Lieder-tenor out of his depth; Rainer Trost’s Painter is similarly anonymous, and Pavlo Hunka’s Schigolch was a much more positively sinister presence in Krysztof Warlikowski’s production for the Théâtre de la Monnaie (Bel Air Classiques, 12/14). Sung with admirable security and nobility of presence by Daniela Sindram, Countess Geschwitz gets an especially rough ride from Tcherniakov, possibly reflecting the composer’s own horrified incomprehension of his sister’s homosexuality as a mental illness.
Both in the house and on film, Christoph Loy’s Royal Opera production was also a bare, colourless and disconcerting experience (Opus Arte, 7/11), but images and impressions from it have stayed with me: he and Agneta Eichenholz reached an uncanny understanding of the central character as an untameable animal. Time may bring a similar accommodation to another Lulu with no sex and no jokes, where Geschwitz is left by Jack to live out her torment. In the meanwhile, Petersen’s more completely feminine assumption of the role also dominates the William Kentridge staging from the Met (Nonesuch, 1/17).