OPERA - OTHER COMPOSERS - LULU
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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