American Lulu – review

This review also appears on the Opera Britannia website

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Taking Alban Berg’s Lulu as a starting point, Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh International Festival present American Lulu – a new re-envisioned interpretation of this piece by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth, who re-orchestrates Berg’s original, attempts to set it within the context of the Civil Rights movement in America and provides a conclusion to compensate for the absence of anything satisfactory at the original composer’s death. Sadly, the end result is a tedious and rather pointless production whose only saving grace is some stunning singing. The cast work hard and cannot be blamed for a production that offers an object lesson in futility.

There’s no doubt that a great deal of effort and work has gone into this. The piece was co-commissioned by The Opera Group and the Komische Oper Berlin and co-produced by The Opera Group, Scottish Opera, Bregenzer Festpiele and the Young Vic. Maybe things turned out so badly because it was effectively produced by a committee. However, one wonders why there was not someone with enough clout in any of those organizations who might have put their foot down and told the rest that this new reinterpretation of Lulu simply isn’t a work that is good enough to be worth staging.

The new orchestration was for a wind-dominated ensemble which also included synthesizer and electric guitar. To these were added various recordings that were woven into the sound-scape, particularly those of spoken texts relating to the Civil Rights movement and recordings that have been made of a Wonder Morton theatre organ in New Jersey. The passages for organ include those which Berg originally specified should be played by jazz ensemble. Yes, that’s right, the opera has been rescored for what is basically a jazz ensemble except for the passages which were scored for jazz ensemble, which are now given over to theatre organ. Heaven knows why. The orchestration itself is muddy. One can hear lines emerging from the mix that are recognisably those of Alban Berg however a lot of work has gone into making them hard to pick out. The weakest parts musically came at the end of the piece – music which we must presume was all Ms Neuwirth’s own.

The action begins though with Lulu, played by American singer Angel Blue, standing on a pouf, centre stage. She is only partly visible, having a loose curtain of shiny strips behind her separating her from the band at the back of the stage and a similar curtain separating her from the audience. Both of these curtains were then subject to drab video projection courtesy of Finn Ross who has done far more exciting work elsewhere. The curtains and the video were to come and go without obvious reason throughout the evening. For an Edinburgh International Festival audience still reeling from the video overkill that was Gary Hall’s Fideliojust a fortnight ago, it was a case of déjà vu. Why does it ever seem like a good idea to put an opera singer behind a curtain?


However, the wonderful thing was that Ms Blue is a superb singer. Not only was her voice excellent throughout but it was matched by the rest of the cast. Though the production had its obvious problems there were none in the singing department and it was a pleasure to hear such a fantastic ensemble of voices. The lead role asks a lot from any singer; the score is tricky and a vast vocal range is expected but Angel Blue was flawless. Her upper vocal work had a particularly glitzy shine and there was a freshness to her singing which lasted through the whole evening. (100 minutes straight through – no time off for good behaviour either for cast or audience).

Lulu goes through a number of lovers and the production is little more than a parade of her affections. First up was Paul Curievici as the Photographer with whom Lulu is enamoured. (He reappeared at the end as her final Young Man). His singing too seemed effortless – a fine tenor with crystal-clear diction. Then we met Donald Maxwell as Dr Bloom, Lulu’s patron and his son Jimmy sung by Jonathan Stoughton. Again, both had strong voices – Maxwell bringing a fabulous rich resonance to proceedings and Stoughton a convincing Southern American accent, the only real clue that we were in the American South.

Composer Olga Neuwirth seems to have been responsible for this Southern setting rather than director John Fulljames. However, he must bear some responsibility for the clunky scene changes and confused narrative. None of this was helped by the recorded excerpts from Martin Luther King and fragments of poetry from June Jordan. The trouble here is that Lulu is, so we are led to understand, entirely untroubled by care for anyone other than herself. She isn’t part of any feminist struggle, black civil rights struggle or indeed any kind of struggle. Each snippet of speech was a reminder that the opera was floating along without paying any heed whatsoever to the context in which the characters had been thrust and to which they seemed entirely oblivious.

Lulu may be a bit of a handful but she is no freedom fighter. Both composer and director seemed to lack any sympathy for any of the characters that they had conjured up. There was one line about this black Lulu ending up singing songs for an all-white audience which might have taken us somewhere in terms of social comment but which was instead simply left dangling around without purpose. (Wouldn’t it be good though if Scottish Opera were to start to think about the almost monochrome ethnic composition of its own audience?). The use of Martin Luther King gobbets to change scenes in an opera about a sleazy, murderous hussy in the week that marked the fiftieth year of Dr King’s great “I have a dream speech seemed frankly rather tawdry.

Meanwhile, Lulu was working her way through her lovers. An Athlete appears for her to dally with. Again, Simon Wilding’s voice was more than adequate but apart from wandering on in American football kit, complete with helmet, he didn’t have much to do. (Do All-American boys really wear football helmets when they go a-whoring? It does seem unlikely). Similarly,Jacqui Dankworth seemed unable to go anywhere without clutching a microphone in her hand to establish her credentials as blues singer Eleanor. Both these characters were little more than singing cartoons. Ms Dankworth though had the great distinction of bringing a gorgeous bluesy voice into the aural mix. She alone amongst what was going on did convincingly take us into the jazz era, even if it was far from clear why we were there. Paul Reeves was nipping on and off stage in three smaller parts and Robert Winslade Andersonsang Clarence, who seemed to be being used as some kind of narrator.

Unfortunately it was not always clear what was going on with this production. At one point there was quite a long near-blackout where the only thing that could be seen on the stage was the cast skulking around in the wings to the sound of a recording of Alban Berg’s music re-orchestrated for theatre organ.  Apparently, true to Berg’s original intention, a film sequence was due to be shown at this point which failed to trigger due to a technical problem.  Perhaps this film would have helped made sense of the rest of the production, though that does seem unlikely.

Ultimately the trouble with this production is not its atonality but its banality. There’s no excuse for taking a femme fatale and making of her something so humdrum. There are so many lovers and so many deaths that one should surely feel something about Lulu, but in the end there is nothing much there to care about. Full marks to the cast who put their all into everything. It was, alas, never going to redeem a show which should never have got anywhere near an Edinburgh International Festival stage and which now moves to the Young Vic in London. The piece ends with Lulu staggering out from behind one of those curtains clutching at a wound that is ultimately going to kill her. It isn’t at all clear who struck the mortal blow – my money is on an opera lover.

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