With giant, rapid figure drawings splashed large across the pages of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, its meticulous definitions contrasting with the refusal of the individual to be so ordered, Kentridge’s set takes on a life of its own: giant, animated characters shift and morph as the tiny humans below pick their way through the mess of life.
The life in question – and death – is that of Lulu, the amoral child-woman who ricochets from one catastrophic relationship to the next, collected by portly men who blame her and her beauty for their own abusive behaviour. She brings it all on herself, you see…
In Kentridge’s production, it is not only we who watch, hands tied, as the life is sapped out of her. Music, theatre and design are bonded perfectly by an on-stage wordless chorus – the Greek drama, not the singing, sort. Just as the piano plays an important role in the orchestral score, both pushing forward the narrative and commenting on it, so at a soundless piano on-stage a watching woman in concert tail-coat looks on for us, expresses our alarm, mirrors the action and directs our attention when it might be waylaid by the swirling design.
A bowed butler similarly stalks the action. Berg transformed musical composition; Kentridge employs the diagonals of visual composition that have served well for centuries. It’s a brilliant partnership.
This vast three-act opera, based on two plays by the German writer Frank Wedekind, has a history as chequered as that of its main character because its completed staging was blocked by Berg’s widow. Unfinished at the time of Berg's death in 1935, it was only completed, by Friedrich Cerha, after the death of Helene Berg, and staged for the first time in its intended three-act form, in Paris, in 1979. It makes huge demands on its singers, above all in the title role, and its richly chromatic score.
As Lulu, the remarkable Wisconsin-born Brenda Rae, making her debut with ENO gives an outstanding performance of physical and vocal alacrity, plunging crotch-first through Lulu’s rootless vocal lines. The big men she dazzles – The Painter (Michael Colvin), the older Schigolch (Willard White), the far from beautiful Dr Schön (James Morris), and his composer son, Alwa (Nicky Spence) – are each repellant in their own way, and there are great performances too from Sarah Connelly as a lovelorn countess, the sole character to sacrifice her own interests, from David Soar, the ringmaster to Lulu’s highwire life, and from Clare Presland as an infatuated boy.
Like living scenery, with Andrea Fabi as the butler, Joanna Dudley at the mute piano sustains three hours of silent commentary, a remarkable feat. The scale and combined visual and vocal achievement recall Kentridge’s great panorama of life, The Refusal of Time, currently in the artist’s show Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery. You could spend an hour perusing a single snapshot of the shapeshifting set: Conscript, Connivance, Conjuror, Connection, Consanguinity read the dictionary entries, as all those nouns are personified below. Breathtaking.
At last here is production to prove once more that troubled ENO can be matchless at staging opera in English with seamless ensemble work, the life of which we have not seen since Terry Gilliam's huge hit with Benvenuto Cellini. Mark Wigglesworth, the ringmaster in the pit, conducts this heady score with precision and lyricism.
This Lulu, like its principal character, is in a league of its own, and it darts straight to the top of the year’s big arts events in London.
Lulu is a co-production with Dutch National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, New York. It is sung in English, with English surtitles.
|What||Lulu review, English National Opera|
English National Opera
London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP
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09 Nov 16 – 19 Nov 16, 7:00 PM – 10:45 PM