Christof Loy's new production of Berg's Lulu at the Royal Opera House really does benefit from repeat viewings as there is so much to take in, it's not possible in one or even two sittings. Second time round, the cast is more confident and settled, so the singing and acting was much better all round.
This time, too, I was sitting nearer the front, to get close-up detail. In a production as spartan as this, Der Teufel is in the detail. There are long passages with no singing, but these are absolutely integral to the development of the music. Instead of distracting the audience with silly gimmicks, Loy puts the focus on the music as simply as possible. So Agneta Eichenholz's Lulu stands alone and vulnerable on an empty stage while the music surges round her. Even at a distance it's a telling moment. Close up, you can see her facial muscles twitch, her shoulders jerk with suppressed tension. This Lulu may look serene but Eichenholz expresses the hidden volcano within.
Eichenholz's Lulu isn't just a cipher or a creature of sensual instinct but a seriously fractured personality. The controlled, elegant exterior is a way of suppressing the chaos within, rather like Berg's almost OCD obsession with patterns and codes. So zips get pulled, shoes and dresses removed, silently showing how clothes are a kind of armour behind which we can hide. Even Peter Rose's portly tum is touching, vulnerable, "exposed".
Thus when, towards the end, Lulu is confronted by her portrait, she loses control and screams "Throw it out!". This scene is brilliant. The portrait isn't an object. What we see instead is a harsh spotlight projected onto Lulu. It pins her down so she can't escape its probing glare. So she cracks up. In many ways, this is her real death, what happens with Jack the Ripper is just the follow-on.
Throughout the opera, things are constantly being projected – other people's fantasies onto Lulu, the music onto the stage. So the idea of film is fundamental to the opera. Intermezzo's blog makes a good point – why so much fascination with the movies? In the case of Berg and his contemporaries, film was cutting-edge technology, a whole new art form with infinite possibilities, opening up new ways of extending opera and music. Nowadays we think of movies as mass entertainment, but German movies were serious art. Many of them are still classics today.
Watching Michael Volle this time evoked a younger version of Emil Jannings, the schoolmaster in Josef von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel, who is destroyed by his love for the vaguely Lulu-like woman played by Marlene Dietrich. Berg of course knew The Blue Angel, it was a sensation, and he and his crowd appreciated film in a way we don't do today outside art-house cinema.
Close up works better too for Klaus Florian Vogt's Alwa. Because so much of this opera is shocking, Alwa's delicacy is often overwhelmed, yet he's in many ways the "conscience" of the piece. He's a composer who hears Lulu in music – one of Berg's more explicit autobiographical clues. When the Painter commits suicide because of Lulu's infidelity, the message cannot have been lost on Schoenberg. So Vogt's understated lyricism was prescient – subtle, almost dominated by the other characters, a counterpoint to the brutality in the major musical themes.
Berg's writing is almost mathematical in its precision – like a balance sheet where entries must match, credit and debit. Although he wasn't doing economic analysis in this opera, the idea of society kept in order by checks and balances does creep in. Life here is a sequence of cold calculating transactions. Lulu uses sex for power, Dr Schön's wealth buys Lulu status, there are so many references to money (and the explicit in-joke of Jungfrau shares). Since seeing this production, the Paris scene is bringing up lots of new ideas for me. It's almost pure Berg, the discords in the music are expressing the discordant situation. Where Cerha pops up, it's in the barrel organ music around Schilgoch in the London scene, a little too literal compared with the distortions Berg's written in before.
Like a good wine, Loy's production improves with age and will, I think, be one of the defining moments in the performance history of this opera. Next season he directs Tristan und Isolde. It will be worth investing in top price seats if it will be as subtle as this Lulu.