The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Monday, July 13, 2009

ROH Lulu (new production) - as devoid of shape, essence, form

George Perle has written very well that debate over whether we should do the Friedrich Cerha completion of Lulu or stick with the two act version with Variations and Adagio tagged on at the end could still be alive and well. There was some agreement with the Alban Berg Stiftung that at least loosely sought out some guarantee that if the Cerha completion was to be played, that the two act version still get performed as often. At least the conjecture has been with Helene Berg and most prestigious of Berg’s composer colleagues, each of whom turned down writing the completion of Berg’s sketches, that there was intended some reworking by Alban Berg especially of what he had of a third act already - but also even of some material from Acts One and Two.

From my own observations, as an aside, that might especially have meant for several passages from Act Two. Franz Welser-Most and more authoritatively Ingo Metzmacher in Hamburg have each opted lately for doing Lulu much as it was before 1979 – year of Paris world premiere of the new three-act version (F. Cerha) conducted by Boulez.

Antonio Pappano, at the Royal Opera, negatively made the case, in doing the three-act Lulu, for doing it in two acts instead. The pains and thoroughness with which Alban Berg took in writing Lulu were at best vaguely audible in his interpretation - especially so during the first two acts. Andrew Davis, from Chicago, at least was clear with this music and showed experience with it, if not drawing out much of its impetus, conceptual or otherwise, or making much of any case for either its dramatic or musical formal elements. For a good ways, it was intermittent from Pappano that we even got this much. The staging, by Christof Loy, exaggeratedly abstract, may have been a further liability.

The title role was handed to still somewhat of a relative unknown – Agneta Eichenholz. Here was certainly, a good stretch of the way through, a fairly brave attempt at it, but it was difficult to hear how things have developed for her in this part much beyond that. In a studied posture, her interpretation of Lulu was quite cool, glib, and passive throughout.

Eichenholz has a good lyrical voice, certainly with some soundness to it, to even attempt Lulu as well as she did. However, when the music turns up the heat for what is required here, Eichenholz’s solutions could only be described as curious. There was not so much a tubular means of achieving the high-flying acuti in this part - for lack of better wording best to be described as pressurized. The straight tone on notes above the staff including a D she quite securely landed on C-sharp, could not only be strident at times, but piercing. Some warmth got through, especially together with Alwa on stage, but frustratingly so little invested in scenes together with Schigolch, some of the opera's truly most intimate. Schigolch understands Lulu in numerous ways more than do the other characters in this..

Once the voice was warmed up, for the second half of the opera, from a good “O freiheit” to the end, Eichenholz provided more consistent results. She did reveal too how to pack a punch or two for several incisive lines in the part. A low point from her was the scene with Dr. Schon to close Act One. Lyrical voices that take on Lulu tend to trace lightly over the music, but with clear emphasis on the words, and also certainly enough tone to at least affect well sustaining the line. Eichenholz, to save voice perhaps, instead opted to chirp her way through this scene, remaining part of (Schoen) sonata passage, for Schoen and her. It was hardly identifiable at this point what was going on, other than there perhaps being a nervous Pomeranian nipping at the heels of Dr. Schoen. Such notion has come up as simile before; Eichenholz made it here full metaphor. insistence to Dr Schoen for calling off marrying his fiancé came across as what could have been instead her reading simple instructions by rote over nearby telephone. She rushed Pappano through opening stanzas or lines of ‘Das Lied der Lulu’ in Act Two, before finally opening out freely therein to reveal what aspects of her vocal art might indeed be worthy for Bergb’s Lulu. She, however, especially for its three act version, is not ready yet for this.

Michael Volle (Dr Schoen) was the most effective of principals in this cast. I am surprised that, as good a voice as he has, that he takes on this part still relatively early on during his career. He cuts as menacing a Dr Scheon as possible in numerous ways, without ever having to resort to barking Schoen’s lines.. The manic, obsessive energy of this man came through in spades, and without a moment where anything felt exaggerated this way or had to be. As Jack the Ripper, he adopted a warmer sound, demeanor very convincingly. Regardless how in other ways the outcome might seem already for Lulu, it was more obvious than just his being replica of Schon how magnetic his appeal was.

One had to wonder too during especially his second of two scenes alone with Lulu in Act One, how Volle could communicate effectively up against, what turned out to be so meager for resistance expected from Lulu. Synopsis wise, he was more likely having instead to resist her demands that in more ways than one appeared to be so miniscule in terms of being compelling - nothing hard to resist in the least.

Jennifer Larmore played a sensitive, dignified, cool, collected Geschwitz at about every step of the way through her part. Her voice, at times, betrayed some strain under pressure, but Larmore kept it quite understated the deep affection - not to mention on what grounds Geschwitz feels for Lulu. Willi Hartmann played lyrically the naïve, quite on purpose affected, and then tortured Painter well, without ever overstating the case. He caught as well the earthiness of the Negro (who slays Alwa during the final scene) very well.

Klaus Florian Vogt played a light voiced Alwa - as thus a good match to Eichenholz in the title role. Passage where Alwa reflects backstage on what it might be like to write an opera on story at hand near end of Act One went well, apart from clunky introduction to it by Pappano (regardless that it is the very start of Wozzeck one hears), as did some of the Rondo portion of Rondo-Hymn, split between both scenes of Act Two. He lapsed though into insipidly crooning “Ich liebe dich” through a high G at the end of his first full liaison with Lulu, but then however was hardly able to sustain anything at all over heavier orchestration by Berg at the end of Act Two for the Hymn portion of this passage

Peter Rose, as Animal Trainer, in selling story to follow, communicated proper authoritative sonority, necessary gusto and good lightness with the text simultaneously. He tended however, as the Athlete, to excessively ham up his lines – vulgar character that the Athlete is – and also clip notation and rhythms. Early in Act Two, he and Larmore seemed to reverse direction of Berg’s tempo markings from poco ritardando to accelerando, to clip what is written - in misguided interest of making it more incisive.

Apart from Volle and Hartmann, the most successful casting here was of Royal Opera veterans Philip Langridge (Prince/Manservant/Marquis) and Gywnne Howell (Schigolch). Lnagridge managed, in fine voice, to find the sinister charm of the Prince toward end of Act One, the begrudging fear and servility of the Manservant in Act Two and the wheedling nature of the Marquis during Act Three to very near perfection. Howell, while playing up a little much the comedic or accessible features of Schigolch, made something very human and involving of the character, with at his age, fine sonority, beautiful diction and reading of Schigolch’s lines. He made it a little further hard to understand why either the staging, Eichenholz or both did not allow much of any more than effective one-way communication with the Lulu on stage. At any rate, it is with perfect reason that Royal Opera keeps such veterans as Langridge and Howell around, for what they represent for the company. Experience does matter in this business.

Before things cohered very well for the final scene, Antonio Pappano gave us little reason why him instead of someone else to conduct this music. The BBC emcee reassured us at the end that in terms of clarity, Pappano’s approach to this music was effective. Texturally alone, things were unclear for near half the time. Except for some uncertain entrances, Pappano accommodated his singers well, including his excessively choppy conducting of Alwa’s hymn at the end of Act Two and making ‘chamber music’ out of at least one of the two big Lulu/Schoen scenes in Act One. Temperature was so low as if to resemble tuning into the noonday soaps instead, albeit with odd soundtrack for such.

The classical structures Berg superimposes on his dramatic layout or canvas were most of the time insufficiently clearly audible most of the way through such central passages - for much of the motivic/set row fiber out of which such is built. Rhythms for passage such as the exchange between Schon and the Painter, where Schon confronts the young man about Lulu’s past, sounded disorganized as to any sense of pulsation - even toward direction things should be headed. Cumulative impact of such a passage was greatly diminished. For rushing things too much, Pappano made almost a complete shambles out of lighter scene for Athlete, Schoolboy, and Schigolch early on in Act Two.

The pistol shot aimed at Schon came out ten minutes later at a rate one better associates with Minnie in Fanciulla del West than how quickly Lulu can pump the metal into Schon - as underpinned by clipped, smeared sixteenths from the ROH violin section. Subtleties in tempo directions were altogether ignored in this passage and two other places in this scene alone. The stillness at marking of ‘Grave’, right after Dr Schon has died, the pause or space needed for this moment, got sloughed off – with flaccid handling of slow stretto octaves right before. It became clear that Pappano, perhaps attempting to posture at being objective or clinically so, does not get it as of yet, when it comes to any of this music.

Pappano likely may have received good coaching for this - from Dohnanyi perhaps. He just has not taken time to thoroughly think this music through for himself – other than to achieve some diaphanous effects in context of music that then hardly ever appeared to go in any specific direction at all. Pappano tended from early on to gild, dovetail its lines. Within such an approach, his failure especially at first to shape the Schon theme in the big sonata passages of Act One meaningfully at all was bewildering.

To Pappano’s credit, at least the ragtime, English waltz, offstage band music during Act One, Scene 3, clearly sounded acoustically as though it was played offstage as marked. At least, to this pair of broadcast ears it did – and as though patrons at both Convent Garden and at Lyric heard things the same way I did, at least I imagine.

Before thinking the late Romantic era and jazz infusion of post-romanticism during Alban Berg’s own time in conducting his music, may I suggest that Pappano, plus anyone else doing this think instead of Mozart and his operas? It seems that big mistake here was in getting it wrong as to who should conduct the Korngold earlier in the season and then who should have conducted Lulu instead, even if it might have meant the two-act version (as it did in Hamburg) instead of the three-act one that got performed yet again. For alone how unprepared much of the first two acts of this sounded, this broadcast turned out to be the least persuasive of what I have yet come across in terms of doing Lulu in three acts.

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