REVIEW: Alban Berg's Lulu at English National Opera

Projections of Kentridge's drawings of the female form
dwarf the performers (right) on stage
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved.


Lulu
(English National Opera, 9th November 2016; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)


Alban Berg's opera, Lulu, based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, traces the tragic trajectory of Lulu's sordid decline, from amoral femme fatale to desperate streetwalker, via a tale of suicide, deceit, murder and incarceration, finally finished off in a dash of dramatic licence by Jack the Ripper, no less.

Its three hour-long acts are strong meat, tackled head on at the ENO in a superb production with soprano Brenda Rae rising majestically to the vocal and expressive challenges of Berg's lead role, and a supporting cast which includes the powerful presence of bass-baritone, Willard White .

Directed by artist William Kentridge, the presentation is visionary - hugely imaginative and technically eye-watering, yet entirely aligned with the spirit of Berg's masterwork.

Kentridge is currently a significant presence in London, with a major career review at the Whitechapel Gallery and a recent staging of his Paper Music collaboration with fellow South African, composer Philip Miller (review).

At his untimely death in 1935, only two acts had been completed by Berg, and the "torso" was performed from 1937 onwards.  The final third act was realised, with reference to Berg's notes and wishes, by Fredrich Cerha over a fifteen year period in a secret commission from Berg's publisher, Universal, and it was only in 1979, three years after the death of Berg's widow, who had vetoed work on the concluding act, that the full three-act version was performed.

Kentridge's production, premiered in Amsterdam in summer 2015 and then at The Met in New York, is a visual and spatial cornucopia, a high stakes feat of rigorous expressive momentum which harnesses the full armoury of his accomplished technical and design teams.

Projected on to the stage areas, his flowing ink drawings and collages collide and combine with live action footage in animated sequences synched to the libretto - including a film sequence specified for a prison scene by the composer in his original concept. Depicting the female form in metamorphosing sequences that disintegrate then reconfigure, or showing the artist's own hands in accelerated motion as he paints and draws, there is a constant sense of surprise - of not knowing what is round the next corner.

The art of illusion is taken to the limit as the opera's murky twilight zones are envisioned by projections that have the power to reshape perceptions of the spaces on the stage. Visual possibilities are wittily exploited as seemingly static sheets of paper are gently tweaked to allow an eye to wink, or for a gust of wind to blow a sheet upwards to expose tape attached to its reverse.

In the shape-shifting execution there is a strong sense of the spirit of Expressionist artist Frans Masereel's woodcuts for his wordless novel, The Passionate Journey, with a nod to Saul Steinberg's Masquerade in the ephemeral, hand-painted masks and imaging of the body painted on to paper sheets worn by the cast.

An omnipresent mute danceuse is a character specifially created by Kentridge to mirror the ethos of the main action in a physically and emotionally demanding role acted out with compelling panache by his frequent collaborator, Joanna Dudley.

On this opening night, Kentridge joined the whole cast on stage and brought on his team and conductor Mark Wrigglesworth to receive many rounds of hugely deserved applause for this sensational production.

Lulu has only two more performances - on 17 and 19 November.