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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).

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.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

Sex, violence, murder and a woman’s slow degradation at the hands of men, Alban Berg’s Lulu probably came more than half a century before its time. Whether the young dancer married to the wealthy professor is the architect of her own downfall will be in the mind of the beholder, this 2009 production from London’s Royal Opera House concentrating our minds by having the stage largely bare. Christof Loy’s production does not seek to clarify or to apportion blame. So on the one hand we are asked to think about the story, and yet without visual scenery the text in itself offers little to suggest the action taking place. As times roll by the music that shocked in 1937 becomes increasingly easy to comprehend, and year on year it seems less challenging to perform. The singing of Agneta  Eichenholz as Lulu is exemplary, the part never taxing her voice, her slight figure making her look an even more vulnerable figure when surrounded by a male cast of substantial size. Visually she is the antithesis of the sexy femme fatale, and with a wry smile looks very bored by all that goes on around her. As Dr Schon, her long-time lover, Michael Voll is superb as the person who cannot rid his desire for her despite his wish to lead a respectable married life. In content Gwynn Howell as Schigolch is the lesser role, but he creates such a totally plausible character as to take most of the plaudits. Klaus Florian Vogt makes Alwa into a pitiable figure who is consumed by passion; three cameo roles from Philip Langridge pay a fitting tribute to his singing, and Jennifer Larmore is in beautiful voice for the Countess. The playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra conducted by Antonio Pappano is excellent and far better than in any of the studio versions on CD, the vast array of microphones pointing to the detail the engineers were aiming for. There is very little for the film crew to do in a production that is, in essence a ‘concert version’, and though I viewed it in excellent Blue-ray sound quality, I guess standard DVD is just as rewarding for this ‘black and white’ production (OA1034D).

Daniel Albright
Opera Today, August 2010

The singing and conducting are of the utmost magnificence: Eichenholz remains lyrical, controlled, unshrill, even during her cruelly high Lied; Michael Volle’s Dr. Schön is strong and secure, eloquently anguished—an Amfortas to the Parsifal of Klaus Florian Vogt, a surprisingly delicate, deft, cantabile Alwa. All of the minor characters deserve praise, but I will mention only the blustering bravura of Peter Rose’s Athlete (and Animal Trainer), and the blasé insinuation of Philip Langridge’s Marquis—Langridge is the only tenor I ever saw who could make Don Ottavio a figure so dangerous that Don Giovanni seemed to have something to worry about, and that skill at menace serves him well in this role.

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