It’s only right that any performance of Lulu should revolve around its protagonist. But the way that the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan dominates Krzysztof Warlikowski’s nightmarish Brussels staging of Berg’s great unfinished masterpiece is nevertheless remarkable. Tall, slender and chameleonic, she stalks the stage compellingly – often in a state of undress, by turns shockingly sexual and numbly asexual, cultivated and animalistic. The voice itself is remarkably clear and clean: not the most sensuous instrument, perhaps, but one that is used with great intelligence and accuracy.
She moves hypnotically, too, and with a balletic grace. Indeed, the fact that Hannigan herself can float around en pointe no doubt helped dictate the fact that the powerfully disturbing image of the broken ballerina plays such a role throughout the production. In one of many extended unaccompanied prologues and postludes introduced by Warlikowski, we watch a ballerina go through a breakdown for a whole five minutes.
These directorial additions, intriguing enough first time around, soon pall though, and they are perhaps symptomatic of a production that piles on decadence and psychological symbols rather too indiscriminately. There are times when the camera struggles to keep up, and when the stage feels cluttered and the action unnecessarily diluted. That said, Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s designs are imaginative. The costumes – beyond Lulu’s multiple outfits – have a deeply unsettling, over-the-top, dystopian feel to them. The set is effectively disorientating too, made up of an imposing pair of escalators on one side, a moveable glass box on the other; curtains are used to emphasise multiple layers of theatricality. The production is at its best, though, when everything is stripped away, and the final 10 minutes are as gripping and shocking as they should be.
Hannigan is also well supported by the rest of the cast. Natascha Petrinsky is a handsome, moving Geschwitz. Dietrich Henschel’s gruff, dry voice seems only to add to his threatening Dr Schön. Tom Randle is impressive as the painter. Very impressive, too, are the orchestra and Paul Daniel, who is particularly adept at finding the score’s drama and beauty. It’s Hannigan, though, who makes this release so irresistibly watchable.