For a company as cash-strapped as Opera Australia to mount a second production of Alban Berg’s 1930s operatic masterpiece Lulu in the space of a decade is as puzzling as the decision is welcome. Part of the explanation is that Melbourne medico, Douglas Mitchell, has again provided sponsorship. Last Friday’s Melbourne premiere demonstrated that his money would have been better spent on importing a soprano who could manage the leading part than on Simon Phillips’s new staging.

Lulu is Emma Matthews’s first full-scale title role. Her voice was often drowned in the orchestral volumes permitted by the OA’s music director Simone Young in the pit. The thinness of Matthews’ coloratura is not the noise that Berg required from his demands on pitch and in passages of high notes.

These vocal liabilities were compounded by a misconception of the character. Lulu is the centre of everyone’s life but her own. Her responding to every ethical question with “I do not know” is not ignorance but innocence. Matthews appeared too knowing, never child-like. Lulu’s pragmatic remarks at moments of high tension should sound neither comic nor cruel, but naive. Love is Lulu’s life, so that she cannot lose one without the other and is destroyed only after trading love for money. Phillips’ production and Matthews’ performance reduce the sexed female to manipulative femme fatale.

Berg’s denial of that cliché is apparent in his empathetic creation of the lesbian Countess Geschwitz. Here too, his radicalism suffered from vocal greyness and insipid characterisation. Catherine Carby’s Geschwitz remained a shadow between her confident entrance and her final bars. Hence, her self-sacrificing love for Lulu never soars above the self-regard of her male admirers. Just as Matthews lacked sweetness, so Carby wanted warmth. By contrast, Donna-Maree Dunlop has a contralto to convince in the pants role of the besotted schoolboy.

Simon Phillips’s direction displayed his confusion about Lulu’s sexuality about which he confesses in his programme notes. In place of ambiguities, we got uncertainties in a production reliant on furniture and a mirrored false ceiling which sweeps forward for each orchestral interlude. Its dissolving effects were entrancing and apt before repetition rendered them tedious. During each of these passages, the mirror hangs over the orchestra to refract Young as a serpentine doppelganger of Lulu, a debatable compliment.

Phillips’s omission of the filmic interlude called for by Berg erased the turning point in his palindromic plot. In this era of pocket digital cameras, the creation of an appropriate video-clip or game is in the back-pack of every art-school student. The omission also indicated an inability to comprehend the composer’s treatment of time.

Most of the men were superior in every department. John Pringle as the one love of Lulu’s life, Dr Schon, whom she murders, and who reappears as Jack the Ripper to kill her, was a model of rectitude in the grip of obsession. His baritone commanded attention and his portrayal attracted sympathy. John Bolton-Wood’s vignettes highlighted how splendid singing and convincing gestures should be combined. Conal Coad revealed a brutish edge to his ever dependable buffo. Barry Mora as Lulu’s first protector-molester carried off the required indifference but did not integrate a wheeze into his bass.

Leading the lighter voices, the tenor of Swedish import Par Lindskog sounded too insistently heroic to satisfy as the weak-willed composer, Alwa, Schon’s son. Yet Lindskog’s resonance confirmed that none of OA’s resident tenors could have managed the role at all. Berg had put himself into the part of Alwa, infusing it with the beauties of his musical art. Given this significance, Lindskog’s melodramatics were more appropriate to the schoolboy, another soft spot neglected by Phillips. Barry Ryan’s painter was adequate in this secondo part, while Jamie Allen rang true in his three brief characterisations.

Under Young’s baton, Orchestra Victoria articulated the intricacies and refinements of Berg’s instrumentation as thrillingly as it revelled in his lyric interludes and astounding crescendos.

This chance to encounter Berg’s brilliance more than outweighs any weaknesses in performance and production. Indeed, on first contact, the richness of Lulu is likely to overwhelm all critical faculties, a reaction which, as Pierre Boulez observed, “acquaintance cannot exhaust”.