Berg Lulu at Glyndebourne
Only this year, Lulu made its DVD début in a musically reliable but scenically inept staging of the two-act version from Zurich. Now, Warner has reissued Glyndebourne’s 1996 staging of all three acts, a much-lauded affair which won the Gramophone Award for Best Video in 1997. Graham Vick’s direction is admirable not only for what it achieves but also for what it avoids.
With its redbrick interior, upward-curving staircase and minimal furnishings, the stage-set has a spartan though not cheapskate air – enlivened by a central hole in the floor, through which characters disappear and emerge according to the needs of the drama. Costumes have a generalised present-day feel, and the recourse to mobile phones was a prescient touch. Crucially, this is a staging which functions as a scenic context for the opera that unfolds, and does not encumber it with a specious extra-musical concept or smother it with designer cleverness. The filmed interlude in Act 2 is both a pragmatic realisation of Berg’s concept and faithful to the spirit of his intentions: a triumph of dramatic common-sense.
The cast has no obvious weak links, as the Zurich production has. Schäfer’s Lulu is the best sung and most beautifully voiced yet record-ed: diffident, even distanced at the outset, yet assuredly in control as she closes down Dr Schön’s emotional space at the end of Act 1 and evincing real expressive pain at her degradation, remembered and ongoing, in Acts 2 and 3. Wolfgang Schöne has the right hollow authority for Dr Schön, and brings an appropriately Mr Hyde-like demeanour to his Jack the Ripper alter ego, while David Kuebler’s fantasising Alwa is the most complete rendition since Kenneth Riegel’s for Boulez. Aloof in her initial emotional exchanges, Kathryn Harries goes on to to find quiet strength and not a little nobility in Countess Geschwitz. Stephan Drakulich’s seedy- looking Painter is unusually accurate, Donald Maxwell’s Athlete over-acted to the point of caricature, while Norman Bailey’s Schigolch has a wiliness that makes the part more substantial than usual.
Davis conducts with a sure awareness of short-term incident and long-term tension – bringing out less of the inter-war jazz colouring than does Welser-Möst, but comfortably surpassing him in those spans of symphonically conceived music that inform so much of the opera. His sense of dramatic pace makes the best case yet for the first scene of Act 3, its mosaic-like succession of exchanges throwing the the second scene’s seamless intensity into greater relief. Friedrich Cerha’s realisation of this act has come in for its share of revisionist criticism, but makes for a musical and dramatic whole such as Berg is unlikely to have altered appreciably had he lived to complete the work.
As directed for video, Humphrey Burton goes to town – only rarely inappropriately – on facial asides and long-range stares. The picture reproduces with the expected sharpness of focus, though the sound throws the orchestra a little too far forward – giving voices a slightly distanced, though never unfocused quality. Subtitles are clear and to the point, and the 33 chapter selections well-placed for ease of access. Patrice Chereau’s more elaborate staging for the 1979 Paris Opera premiere of the complete work (featuring Teresa Stratas’s elegant Lulu and Yvonne Minton’s still-unsurpassed Geschwitz) would be welcome on DVD – in which format, this performance is now a clear first choice.