BWW Review: LULU, London Coliseum, 9 November 2016
Beautiful, unknowable Lulu - all things to all men, who has "never pretended to be anything by what men see in me" - is the chameleon-heroine revealed in Berg's musical mirror. But just as she reinvents herself with each new gaze, so the opera itself morphs and shifts with passing time, reflecting back the concerns of each age. A smudgy parable about German economic growth becomes by turns a sharply drawn feminist critique or a Freudian exploration of pleasure. This week, in a post-truth world crowned by a Trump presidency, Lulu looks like a timely tale of illusion and reality and the danger when you can no longer tell the difference between the two.
Already seen in New York and Amsterdam, South African artist William Kentridge's production may have been conceived long before the current political crisis, but its sliding screens and paper palimpsests, its restless and relentless trying on of images for size, its visual reinventions and evolutions, couldn't be more timely. Some may balk at the constant assault of information and stimulation, but surrender to its gorgeous chaos, stop trying to see where set ends and projection begins or to identify the many figures whose sketches fleetingly appear, and you'll find a natural foil - a visual equal and opposite - to Berg's meticulously arranged and highly formalised score.
Kentridge's signature processes - the filmed sketches that emerge and disappear again in a constant state of evolution, leaving their traces on the paper - make an instinctive partner for Berg's opera about self-invention and projection. Human figures in this gorgeous Art Deco landscape are distorted and flattened into two-dimensional avatars by the addition of masking headpieces and grotesque oversized hands, while their paper counterparts live a vivid semblance of a life, mutating before our eyes. Lulu's portrait, painted in the very first scene, is no fixed affair, but one that develops in tandem with its real-life counterpart, shadowing her decline from salon darling to prostitute. Lulu herself becomes a living Rorschach ink blot, splayed out specimen-like to reveal the men who gaze on her to themselves.
But Lulu lives and dies with its heroine, and in Brenda Rae ENO have a soprano capable not only of scaling the unnatural heights of Berg's vocal writing but also of projecting the fascination she must if this paper castle of illusion and beauty isn't to come tumbling down. Rae proves herself the consummate singing actress, sexual without being obvious, vulnerable without being weak, capable of carrying us with her in her precipitous rise and sudden fall. Hers isn't the biggest voice, lost just occasionally in this large house, but it has the colours and the notes that matter, capable of delivering both the sexless, denatured pitches at the top of the voice and the warmer shades of almost-emotion.
She's supported by an exceptionally fluid and delicate reading of the score by Mark Wigglesworth and the ENO orchestra, who find a supple, late Romantic surge in this music as well as its glittering and unyielding modernity, varnished with the glossy tones of vibraphone and alto saxophone. Lulu's assorted lovers, husbands and clients demonstrate the company's skill at assembling an ensemble cast. David Soar makes his mark as the Animal Tamer and Athlete, punching his way into the musical texture, while Nicky Spence brings troubling beauty and line to Alwa's music, only equalled by Sarah Connolly's heartbreaking and deliciously buttoned-up Countess Geschwitz, sung with such suppressed passion.
Only James Morris's Dr Schon ("the only man who really loved me") lacks presence, offering us an emotional cipher that dulls the dramatic blade when he returns as Jack the Ripper, and vocally too close to Willard White's hollowed-out Schigolch.
As a piece of musical theatre you won't find better this year. Kentridge's Lulu isn't an easy watch, but it's one that satisfies infinitely. Return a second or third time and you'll see an entirely different show, so generous and plural are its ideas. But among so much thought it never forgets to feel, and that's the key to a Lulu that not only fascinates but compels. Essential viewing.
Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore