Through a glass, darkly

‘Proud men and life-affirming women’ are, to quote the prologue, the poles of Alban Berg’s opera, Lulu and Frank Wedekind’s two plays—Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box—which are its textual base. Berg saw a private Viennese performance of the just-published Pandora’s Box in 1905, 23 years before he began work on the opera. Like the author before him, Berg was concerned to reflect the fundamental contradictions and absurdities of the human condition. Is this all nature or nurture? Is sex a creative or a destructive force?

Hence the male-female contrast with which play and opera confront us in the person of the Animal Trainer. He accuses us of being like animals brought up on a bland vegetable diet, our spirits sapped. This piece, he promises, will show us real wild animals; and he presents us with Lulu. That reveals the first stroke of genius in Simon Phillips’s new production for Opera Australia, which opened in Melbourne in April and which Sydney will see in October. The Animal Trainer calls an assistant to bring on ‘our snake’ and out comes sleazy and wheezy Schigolch (a sort of Beckett-Patrick White shambles) pushing a supermarket trolley hung with old plastic bags. We never know, in the opera, whether he’s Lulu’s father or an old pimp. He opens a big, soiled cardboard carton from which he draws a little girl, wearing the kind of saucy red dress in which we will soon see the ‘adult’ Lulu, knowingly twisting the strands of her blonde wig.

One could almost feel the chill of a shudder pass through the entire audience.‘The sweet innocent,’ the Trainer says, ‘My greatest treasure.’ It is the complexity of this central character that has eluded many of the Australian critics who have written about this production. The question, surely, is—as the American scholar, Carl Richard Mueller wrote in the Introduction to his translation of the plays—‘Who is Lulu? What is she? Lulu is all things and something different to every man. She is fact, she is myth; she is corporeal, she is idea; she is realist, she is ideal.’ In telescoping the two plays, Berg sought to reflect the lifecycle of this polychrome character by a second part which is the mirror image of the first: the three husbands whom she kills, inadvertently or deliberately, all return as clients of Lulu the prostitute, in sordid decline after her previous luxurious ascendancy. The third of them, played by the singer who was Dr Schön, (ironically, as she said, the only man she ever loved), is Jack the Ripper and he murders her.

Berg brilliantly turns this plot back on itself with an orchestral interlude which is a musical palindrome (though it is not obvious without detailed study of the score). At this point the composer asked for a brief film, also palindromic, which unfolds and recapitulates Lulu’s life. Several critics were upset that Phillips did not employ this device, yet all three European productions which I have seen also dispensed with it—with an imaginative production to complement Berg’s music, it is unnecessary. Which part of her life, then, is ‘real’—who is the real Lulu, who are the real associates, the real us?

Hence Phillips’s second and pervasive coup: his use of a huge reflector, producing
distorting images, angulated above the action. We see everything twice, though what we actually see depends on where we’re sitting; more than twice, really, because at scene changes this vast mirror is lowered and we then see the orchestra, the conductor (Simone Young, flaunting a sexy Lulu-like dress), even the prompter. It’s all very Brechtian, a reflection of Wedekind’s hostility to the social realists of his time.

Phillips’s third great success is the excellence he has achieved in his singers’ acting. Whether these roles are small (John Bolton-Wood and Jamie Allen, in particular) or more important—notably Barry Mora (Schigolch), Conal Coad (the S&M Animal Trainer and the Athlete), Pär Lindskog (Alwa) and especially John Pringle as Schön/Jack, in the performance of his career—they are superbly played. Only Catherine Carby, as Geschwitz, the hapless lesbian aristocrat with her futile love for Lulu, is less convincingly focused.

And at the heart of it all, Emma Matthews as Lulu. She is not vocally ideal in Melbourne; her voice was not powerful enough to bestride the orchestra and was over-stretched in her top register. The smaller, more congenial Sydney Opera Theatre posed few such problems. As an actress she is brilliant: lithe, poised, sinuous in her unremitting eroticism and, eventually, touchingly desperate.

Presiding over the superb venture, the mirror of the composer’s own genius, is Young herself. Her precisely assured conducting bringing both conviction and radiance to Berg’s immensely complex musical thought and structures and sometimes achieving what sounds (especially from brass and lower strings) like resigned sighing. That wry but thoughtful emotion is, perhaps, how we should leave the theatre, pondering the overlap of life and art, the contradictions of Lulu and ourselves.

John Carmody is a Sydney medical scientist and opera and music critic.

 

 

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