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Peter Quantrill
Gramophone, July 2011

BERG, A.: Lulu (Royal Opera House, 2009) (NTSC) OA1034D
BERG, A.: Lulu (Royal Opera House, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7070D

The Royal Opera’s controversially ‘minimalist’ Lulu transfers to DVD

The promises of the Animal Trainer are more than usually hollow at the start of Christof Loy’s Lulu. He wants us to work hard, to forget chasing any scent or taint of voyeurism, to do better than the deadbeats who fall under Lulu’s spell. But why do they? The limit of Agneta Eichenholz’s powers of seduction is reached with a crooked Mona Lisa of a smile. There’s nothing coquettish about her reaction to the death of her first husband: she seems perpetually appalled by both herself and the world. In the accompanying documentaries she stresses how difficult the piece is, both for her and the audience, while Pappano is keen to bring clarity, in both his conducting and his talking; he thinks that Loy’s production, being “devoid of any kind of decoration…helps the music to be heard more clearly”. Like many productions now staged with an eye to DVD release, the 16:9 shape of the stage and intimacy of gesture certainly make more sense now than they did in the theatre unless you sat at the front of the stalls (I didn’t).

The singers, like some of us, meet Loy’s challenge with varying success. Will Hartmann is a wonderfully open, naive Painter, a Schubertian young Wanderer. Jennifer Larmore and Gwynne Howell present the most convincingly fleshed-out characters but the least well-harmonised with the production, because they seem to carry with them the vocal and theatrical memories of their previous work in the roles. Klaus Florian Vogt is uneasy all round and sometimes seems unsure what show he’s appearing in. Heather Shipp’s pert and direct Schoolboy could stand for my own experience: (s)he sees most of what’s going on, is happy to take part but with only a flickering sense of what it means. Berg’s proud dedication of the score to Schoenberg now seems less relevant than ever: “This German opera…is indigenous in the sphere of the most German music”—including, perhaps, the anti-Semitic jibe he inserted in Act 3 (which the eagle-eyed Schoenberg alighted upon and so refused to have anything to do with a completion).

Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, February 2011

Pappano says of the production that it enables us to concentrate on these “very strange and disturbed people” in the interview tacked on to the second disc. The stage action is indeed set in high relief by the stark yet compelling sets. This is all prepared on DVD, in fact, by the eerie silence of the opening titles. Out of black screen emerges the ascending fourths that themselves announce the Prologue. Everything is in black and white. The generally simple, black and white sets tend to emphasize the emotions on stage—the meeting of Geschwitz (the beautifully toned Jennifer Larmore) and Lulu in Act 2 Scene 1 positively smoulders, for example. The Animal-Trainer (Peter Rose) is less obviously obsessed with his subject than Gerd Nienstedt for Boulez. Both Lulu’s and August’s faces are deliberately blanked out of emotion. As Lulu shoots Schön, the curtain has descended by about two thirds—the feeling is claustrophobic, as if the world is pressing in on all concerned—and on Lulu in particular. There is no film for the Filmmusik, unfortunately. Instead, the murdered Schön gets up and walks off stage, then the characters position themselves for the next scene.

The grim, empty stage that serves for the London scene (act 3 scene 2) accentuates the hopelessness of Lulu’s situation. Lulu’s portrait—allegedly brought by Geschwitz—is non-existent; rather the characters gather in a circular spotlight against the back of the stage for this moment. After Lulu’s death, Larmore (Geschwitz) once more enters that spotlight as she sings Geschwitz’s magnificently lyrical love song to her beloved.

There is no furniture for the first scene. Men are dressed in suits, Alwa in a near dress-duplicate of his father. The static, single-colour background also serves to throw attention on every gesture of each character. Again, at the onset of Act 3, enigma is all—as the orchestra tunes, silhouettes mingle in front of a light blue background; it turns out that this is how the vital, ruinous drop in Jungfrau shares is set, later, towards the end of the first scene of Act 3. Alwa is sung by Klaus-Florian Vogt, who excels in enacting the hormone-driven young man. The imitations between the voices of Alwa and Lulu—the gap between statements of their theme become ever close as the seduction progresses—are expertly managed, as is orchestrally the sensual entrance of the saxophone.

The ‘beggar’ who rings the doorbell and interrupts Alwa and Lulu’s impending coitus is the enigmatic Schigolsch (Gwynne Howell). Their duet—which begins in a single, stationary, blue-white spotlight—is superbly managed, with a fine sense of continuing sexual undercurrent. Enter the rather more buttoned-up Dr Schön (Michael Volle). Volle is in magnificent voice, and makes, in the final act, a truly creepy Jack the Ripper. Yet it is the spoken climax of the scene, wherein Lulu declares her worldly debt to Schön, that carries the most emotional weight here. Will Hartmann, as the painter driven to suicide, is persuasive as a besotted victim of Lulu’s charms.

Eichenholz’s Lulu seems to grow in power until by the end of act 1, her systematic destruction of Schön is both no surprise and concurrently a virtuoso display of her power over men. Eichenholz has the ability to sing the most disjunct lines with the most wonderfully convincing cantabile—she’d make a great interpreter of the Webern songs. She has power, too—as when she states her freedom in the final section of Act 2.

Jennifer Larmore’s Geschwitz, although a smaller part, matches Lulu in terms of expertise and intensity. She comes into her own in the final act, cuddling Lulu gently while the latter bargains with Jack the Ripper to stay the night.

Good to see Philip Langridge here, as always the model of eloquence and sophistication, as behind frosted glass we see Lulu have a fainting fit. As the Marquis in Act 3, he is the epitome of slime as he threatens to turn Lulu in to the police. The smaller roles are uniformly well taken. Heather Schipp especially impresses as Dresser/Schoolboy/Groom—she’s a very street-wise-dressed schoolboy, by the way.

Pappano paces the moments of drama—the Medical Doctor’s fatal heart attack, for instance—very well. A pity Jeremy White’s heart-attack is so obviously hammed up, especially when thrown into direct contrast to Alwa’s reaction: his hesitant “Herr Medizin—Herr Medizinalrat…”. He realizes the yearning lyricism that shoots through the core of the score, and moments such as Alwa’s cry to the dead Doctor to “Wach auf” (Wake up) are heart-rending. Pappano also makes aural sense of the score’s most complex moments which, in lesser hands, usually sound simply ragged, yet he also honours the intense Romanticism of the orchestral interlude in Act 1 (between Scenes 2 and 3). Act 3 is the real headache for any conductor, with huge amounts going on at various points. Pappano is not baulked in the slightest. There is real immediacy here, too, not least at the moment of Lulu’s death, where an orchestral Urschrei of truly earth-shattering power is unleashed.

Pappano’s “extra” is a short almost didactic film in which Pappano lucidly illustrates Berg’s techniques (including note rows). Pappano sits at the piano—which he uses frequently to illustrate his points—but short excerpts from the opera itself are also inserted. This is a lucid, easily followable discourse on Berg’s techniques. Pappano states that Berg “found a freedom that Schoenberg never found”. Agneta Eichenholz’s interview is fascinating. She is remarkably eloquent in English and talks of how she learned the part in a year. She isolates the “rhythm” as the hard part rather than the more obvious difficulty, the terrifyingly high tessitura Berg sometimes demands. Her main goal is to act the part, then to sing it, she says. Lulu is “a little bit of every woman”. Eichenholz also points to the sets—they “make you feel naked” and highlight the interpersonal relationships onstage, particularly Lulu’s with Dr Schön. She has learned that “Lulu is weak and strong at the same time, and that’s OK”.

A fascinating set, one that is truly thought-provoking and stimulating.

Tim Pfaff
Bay Area Reporter, December 2010

Christof Loy’s controversial Covent Garden production of Berg’s last opera, Lulu (Opus Arte DVD), gave us Antonio Pappano’s conducting at its most penetrating. Despite a hundred individual touches I found gratuitous in Loy’s work, no other Lulu in my experience (which goes back to Silja at the War Memorial before we had all three acts of the opera) has bored as deep into the core of this unfathomably mysterious, psychologically harrowing opera. Heading another great cast, Agneta Eichenholz’s mesmerizing performance of the title role burned holes in the memory. For me, this Lulu was Recording of the Year—and like having heroin in the house.

David Shengold
Opera News, December 2010

BERG, A.: Lulu (Royal Opera House, 2009) (NTSC) OA1034D
BERG, A.: Lulu (Royal Opera House, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7070D

Covent Garden’s second-ever production of Berg’s brilliant second opera came in for both praise and criticism when it opened, due to the stripped-down, minimalist staging by Christof Loy. As captured on DVD, it seems like a concert reading at first, with everyone in fairly hip black-and-white contemporary clothes in front of a glass background. There’s no set: locked rooms and scene endings are conveyed with changes in lighting, which is good for the dramatic flow. Lulu’s portrait, perhaps the key prop in the entire drama, is here absent—or rather, it is conveyed by a projected circle of light into which the characters peer, or in front of which they pose. Some operagoers found the strict emphasis on personal interaction too stark in the theater, but on the home screen, Loy’s intelligent Personenregie more than holds interest—though it helps if one already knows Lulu pretty well.

Antonio Pappano has the ROH orchestra playing beautifully, though tension goes notably wanting in Act III. Agneta Eichenholz, a slight, raven-haired Swedish soprano in her first high-profile assignment, makes a brave, ultimately successful Lulu; seen close up, her expressive face, with its enigmatic off-kilter smile, does much interpretive work here. Her singing is also expressive and tonally pleasant, despite occasional screaminess on top, though she lacks the spectacular precise attack of Patricia Wise or Laura Aikin in the role. This Lulu is no innocent: her hands wander provocatively onto each of her eventual victims. Jennifer Larmore, singing effectively, wisely follows Evelyn Lear’s example, stressing Geschwitz’s elegant femininity; at the end, she unexpectedly survives.

Michael Volle, younger than many singers who essay Dr. Schön—who here simply becomes Jack the Ripper—also plays the Animal Trainer’s assistant in the prologue. He offers a strong, varied, verbally incisive portrayal of the publisher in his arc of deterioration and an excellent account of the music, even when partially smeared with greasepaint and stage blood (a Loy touch I found less than inspired). Klaus Florian Vogt makes an attractive Alwa, though with his “young Parsifal” blankness he seems too naïve for the privilege-besotted playwright. His patented “choirboy” soft-edged sound strains at the climax of Act II. Will Hartmann plays with considerable detail the ungrateful roles of the Painter and the Negro (here looking just like the bloodied Painter).

The late Philip Langridge enacts his three cameos (Prince/Servant/Marquis) with abundant artistry. Peter Rose is cast as much against type as the Athlete as most opera critics would be, including myself; both his singing and gestures seem overdone in this production’s spare context. Heather Shipp, in what I expect I will always think of as the “Hilda Harris parts”—Dresser, Schoolboy, Groom—is directed along the same lines. Gwynne Howell makes a sonorous Schigolch, evoking a louche Alfred P. Doolittle.

The two-DVD set includes interviews with the lead soprano and conductor. This is a fascinating issue.

Joe Banno
The Classical Review, November 2010

BERG, A.: Lulu (Royal Opera House, 2009) (NTSC) OA1034D
BERG, A.: Lulu (Royal Opera House, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7070D

You can really sense the long shadow of Wieland Wagner in director Christof Loy’s stunningly stripped-down 2009 production of Alban Berg’s Lulu for Covent Garden, which registers with merciless detail on a new Blu-ray from Opus Arte.

When Lulu forces her hapless lover, Dr Schön, to write a letter breaking off his engagement to a respectable fiancée, there’s nothing actually being written in Loy’s staging—only Lulu smearing humiliating clown-white across Schön’s crestfallen features. As Lulu, on the threshold of her brief and gruesome career in prostitution, stands with Schön’s son, Alwa, staring at the portrait a former lover created of her, there’s no oil painting in sight; the two simply glance across the footlights toward a portrait we all imagine, but never see. The dead sit in chairs, staring off-stage, in this minimalist world Loy has conjured, or they lurk at the periphery of the playing area to watch events unfold, or scramble from the place where they’ve been murdered to lumber into the wings as Berg’s orchestral interludes move us from one scene to the next.

As with Wagner’s Bayreuth stagings in the 1950s and ’60s, Loy’s Lulu is pared down to essences: a bare stage, the simplest of costumes, and singing-actors who, more often than not, stand still and let the grim psychodrama of the piece register on their faces, or physicalize their intentions with the sparest and clearest of gestures. So striking is the production’s stark beauty, so mesmerizing are the performers, and so effective is the director’s drawing-out of the work’s core, that this Royal Opera Lulu feels more like a landmark staging of a punishingly difficult piece, than simply another conceptual update.

Loy’s design team is instrumental in making it all work. Herbert Murauer’s no-frills set—nothing more than a bare white stage and black wings, backed by a row of frosted-glass panels and a lit scrim—and the black business suits and little-black-dresses, designed by Murauer and Eva-Mareike Uhlig, look at once handsome and forbidding under Reinhard Traub’s unforgiving, color-free lighting.

Of course, such lack of adornment throws a lot of focus on the singers, who more than earn the extra attention given them. Agneta Eichenholz’s Lulu is (as she needs to be) the lynchpin here, her pale skin and chiseled features as alluring as her animal stare and psychotically lopsided smile are chilling, and her glowing soprano—so agile in the coloratura—able to make the jaggedness of the vocal writing sound sensually lovely. Her dramatic concentration is intense, and she’s partnered effectively by Michael Volle in the paired roles of the quietly anguished Schön, and a scarily lighthearted Jack the Ripper. Klaus Florian Vogt, as Alwa, and Will Hartmann, as the Painter, both manage the tricky feat of filling their music with generous, impassioned tone, while physically crumpling like empty husks when romantically shattered by Lulu.

There are fine performances, too, from some veteran singers—all in expressive, well-preserved voice—Gwynne Howell (nicely underplaying the creepiness of Lulu’s father-lover Schigolch), Philip Langridge (in one of his last stage appearances before his untimely death, playing a nicely contrasted trio of would-be paramours to Lulu), Peter Rose (amusingly muscle-headed as the Athlete), and Jennifer Larmore, whose Countess Geschwitz is much prettier and sexier than one often encounters, but no less dignified or touchingly vulnerable for that.

Antonio Pappano conducts a vividly colored account of Berg’s music (with the Covent Garden orchestra at the top of their form in the full, three-act version completed by Friedrich Cerha), honoring the rich, post-Romantic effusions as much as the jabbing dissonances in this thorny score. It’s gratifying that Pappano doesn’t have a lot of visual noise to compete with for our attention.

Kurt Moses
American Record Guide, November 2010

The orchestral score is beautifully played; I’ve rarely heard a pit orchestra play with such ravishing sound—it was wonderfully transparent and when needed, very powerful.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Tim Pfaff
Bay Area Reporter, October 2010

Even its proponents did not call Christoph Loy’s production of Berg’s Lulu at Covent Garden the previous month perfect. But the DVD assembled from two performances in mid-June (Opus Arte) delves deeper into the troubled heart of this masterpiece than any other recording to date, its lacerating beauties all but unbearable in a reading this nakedly dramatic and musically penetrating.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, August 2010

What we get in this production is not very far removed from a concert performance...But what launches this version into the front rank of Lulus—and there are just a few—is the singing. Even though the justly acclaimed 1997 video of Humphrey Burton’s production featuring Christine Schafer at Glyndebourne has been out for six years, Schafer can’t compare to the lithe and superbly agile vocalism of Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz. Not only does she look great at 38, and this is a role you have to look good in or it just doesn’t work, unless—see concert version above, her mannerisms seem so fitting and natural for the role that it is a little eerie. And her singing is extraordinarily flexible in this most unforgiving of roles which takes the soprano from low lows to super-high highs in a flash, with catastrophe-in-the-making intervallic leaps. Now be aware that no one can possibly sing this music note for note perfectly—it simply cannot be done. But Agneta Eichenholz’s attempt comes closest to any I have heard before, and her tour-de-force is one which has to be reckoned with. Technical matters aside, she also possesses a sweet tonal palate that is just perfect for this role, not too heavy as is often the case for those tackling the expressionist composers, and a sexual vulnerability that is equally femme fatale and victim to her own life experiences.

The rest of the cast is equally fine. The wonderful Jennifer Larmore makes a frightened and culpable appearance as Countess Gerschwitz, the lover and comrade-in-death with Lulu at the hands of Jack the Ripper, singing at the top of her game. Michael Volle is an outstanding Dr. Schon/Ripper, playing the hypocritical husband/father figure/pimp to Lulu while still loving her in a way that makes his ultimate death at her hands more comprehensible. The pathetic role of Alwa is nicely realized by Klaus Florian Vogt.

I won’t mention any more as there are no weak links anywhere in the singing at all, and the direction by veteran Antonio Pappano, whose knowledge of the score equals that of any conductor alive makes for an intense and often quite radiant experience. The black/white tenor of the set is often dullish and monochromatic—I still wish we had something else—but even if something does eventually come along (and Lulu is a tough role to cast) if will have to be golden in order to beat this performance. It could have been five stars if the set values were higher. As is, with terrific Blu-ray sound and visuals it has to occupy first place.

Parterre Box, August 2010

Christof Loy’s highly controversial 2009 production of Berg’s Lulu for The Royal Opera House has been released on DVD (Opus Arte), with beautifully realized film direction by Robin Lough. Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of The Royal Opera House lead an extraordinary cast of singing actors in plumbing the musical and psychological depths of this modern masterpiece.

Lulu has a complex history. Based on two plays by Wedekind, the opera was left incomplete at Berg’s death in 1935, with only fragments of the third act orchestration completed. The composer’s widow Helene Berg is said to have sought Schoenberg to complete the piece, but when he declined, she withheld the original third act sketches and refused to allow another composer to see them. The incomplete version, usually utilizing Berg’s Lulu Suite in place of a third act, was first performed in 1937. It was not until Helene Berg’s death in 1976 that Friedrich Cerha realized the third act; the complete Lulu was first performed in Paris in 1979 with Teresa Stratas in the title role. 

This harrowing tale of an irresistible woman who manipulates and is manipulated by the men and women in her life leads inevitably to downfall and destruction, both physically and mentally. Loy’ s minimalist and somewhat modernized production dispenses with period trappings and succeeds wonderfully in focusing our attention on the rich score and on the subtleties of character interaction. The set by Herbert Murauer consists of a black wall bordered with a strip of metal at the bottom; the only furniture a small wooden chair. The extraordinary lighting of Reinhard Traub allows the wall to take on color and dimension, particularly striking when it turns to an icy blue. The costumes (by Murauer and Eva-Mareike Uhlig) are completely monochromatic, entirely in black, white, and shades of grey; the only use of color, tellingly, is red blood; the violent scenes are thus made particularly shocking.

Loy blocks the scenes with singers either facing straight front, in profile, or, when exiting or hiding, turning their backs at the back wall; the stark psychological isolation of the characters is thus made utterly clear. When characters need something from each other, the blocking becomes naturalistic. There are numerous visually stunning moments: when Lulu licks the blood of her Painter husband off the fingers of Dr. Schon, I wanted to avert my eyes in horror, but the moment spoke volumes about the strange need Lulu and Schon have for each other. Later, in another stunner, Lulu “emasculates” Schon by painting his face with her stage make-up; he wears this make-up until his death. Loy manages these moments as part of the storytelling; never do they draw attention to themselves as “effects.”

The cast is uniformly strong. This production was originally to have featured Aleksandra Kurzak in the title role; when she withdrew, Pappano and Loy cast Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz. She is indeed a find, and her performance is vocally and dramatically brilliant. A small, beautiful woman (a resemblance to Audrey Hepburn) who moves with a dancer’s grace, Eichenholz manages the treacherous vocal highs and lows of the role with ease and stamina. She is by turns seductive, cold, desperate, touching and vulnerable. Her acting skills are extraordinary. This is a singing actress on the verge of a major career.

Michael Volle is a grounded and powerful Dr. Schon. Jennifer Larmoregives an unusually complex and compelling Countess Geschwitz, vocally lustrous and played with a subtlety that shows no foreshadowing of her recent Norma Desmond-ish Gertrude in Hamlet at the Met. In one of his last roles, Philip Langridge is a brilliantly slimy Marquis, who wants to sell Lulu to a Cairo brothel. Gwynne Howell is a solid, enigmatic Schigolch (though he is the only performer who constantly needs to look at the conductor, breaking up the drama). I found Klaus Florian Vogt (Alwa) to be vocally fine but his performance seemed rather bland.

Pappano’s work with this difficult and complex music was is riveting. He understands, as few do, the romantic side of this opera. The beauty of the piece was never so clear to me, and thus the moments of dissonance were even more interesting. Rarely do a conductor and stage director complement each other’s work as Loy and Pappano do here.

I’m not sure this DVD would make a good choice for a Berg newcomer, but I highly recommend it for those familiar with the work. The skilled film work also enhances the enjoyment; I expect this DVD, which allows us close-up to see tiny details of expression, is a far stronger emotional experience than seeing it in an opera house.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, August 2010

When the master of ceremonies promises his audience a journey into the bestiality of mankind, he points to Lulu, introducing her as a serpent, the slimiest creature of them all. It’s the beginning of a sordid, soulless journey of lust and murder that ends when Jack the Ripper murders Lulu, whose downward spiral drags her from the dance stage to desperate prostitution.

Composed by Alban Berg (1885-1935) and adapted by him from two plays by Frank Wedekind, Lulu is anything but a fun romp. Between its angst and complex 12-tone score, this is opera at its most intense. This über-stark, modern-dress, 2009 production from the Royal Opera House in London makes it the operatic equivalent of sitting on a stone slab for nearly three hours. (This is the 1979 completed version of the score, for which Berg had left sketches for a third act.)

But the music (conducted by Antonio Pappano) is so well done, and the casting so appropriate, that this production takes on a magnetic force of its own. The only element missing from this production is a short video interlude in Act 2 showing Lulu getting arrested for shooting her mentor, Dr. Schön.

The biggest prize in this production is soprano Agneta Eichenholtz, who, with her blank doe eyes and crooked smile, is the very embodiment of Berg’s blithe femme fatale.

Safely stash away away any firearms and sharp objects, and enjoy.

This two-DVD set includes substantial interviews with Eichenholtz and Pappano.

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