Thursday, 9 July 2009

Berg Lulu – Chéreau stagecraft

At last, after all these years of knowing Berg’s Lulu from the acclaimed audio recording conducted by Pierre Boulez, I’ve managed to see the 1979 production on film. It was directed by Patrice Chéreau with whom Boulez created The Ring Cycle for Wieland Wagner which so transformed Bayreuth and Wagner performance practice. After 40 years, that Ring (readily available on DVD) isn’t shocking at all, but quite apposite to the music and symbolism.

Although I saw the original Chéreau Lulu first time out, I can’t remember much because I was so shaken by the plot and music. Nothing scary about the staging though, which seemed pretty conventional even for the time. Perhaps this was necessary as this was the first time the opera had been heard in its full three-act glory and it was a lot for audiences to take on board.

Teresa Stratas looks perfect for the role – frail and birdlike, her limbs darting in odd, angular jerks. She’s nimble, swaying her hips like the snake the Animal Trainer refers to. When she catches the Painter between her knees, she snares him like a boa constrictor. She’s so flat chested you can see her ribs, so fragile looking you think she’ll break when embraced. Physically she brings out the dark side of the plot, the danger, the child abuse and cruelty. No wonder Stratas is rated by many as a good Cho Cho San even if her voice isn’t lush enough for Puccini. As an actress, she’s fine, though no one can come near to the incomparable Christine Schäfer who haunts every frame of the Glyndebourne production.

Chéreau’s production of Lulu came in for flak because he moved the time from turn of the century Vienna to the 1930’s. Why this should have caused a fuss is incomprehensible, since Berg was writing in the 1930’s and wasn’t following Wedekind slavishly in any case. Moreover, nothing in the narrative actually references a particular period. There wasn’t a revolution in Paris in Wedekind’s time any more than in Berg’s : what counts is the sense of looming disaster, which a 1930’s setting expresses even better. They had a stock market crash for real! Had Berg lived, he and many close to him would have suffered under the Nazis, and he knew it. As for Jack the Ripper, in this opera he’s symbolic, not historical.

Sets and designs (Richard Peduzzi) are completely realistic. The Painter’s studio has paintings, not just of Lulu. One looks vaguely like a portrait of Dr Schön which is a subtle clue. Similarly, Chéreau and his team picked up on another fundamentally important detail. Schilgoch doesn’t feel safe in Lulu’s mansion, because the marbles is polished so perfectly that he’s afraid he’ll slip. Dark green marble dominates the set, at one shining and elegant yet vaguely sinister. Impenetrable hard surfaces, whose coolness can be treacherous. Schigolch, who knows Lulu so well, can recognise the implications. Christof Loy’s toughened glass wall is thus a descendant of Chéreau’s polished marble.

Not all stage directions carry the same density of meaning. Shining surfaces reflect (literally) the hard brightness of Lulu’s life when she’s rich and in control. It doesn’t matter much whether Dr Schön dies on a sofa or on the floor. In his anguish he could not care less. Falling on marble is perhaps more meaningful. And Lulu and Alwa don’t need a sofa to make out on. Wouldn’t the police have removed it for forensics, anyway? In a wealthy household, no one would keep an old bloodstained divan. As if Alwa didn’t know where his father died. What counts in this scene is the malevolent way Lulu announces the fact to the poor fellow.

It doesn’t make a jot of difference whether Lulu meets her end in an attic or in a cellar : all that matters is that she’s shown in degraded surroundings. Götz Friedrich at the Royal Opera House in the 80’s showed Schilgoch and Alwa peeing against a wall in the final scene. Why not? That’s what London streets are like. The men treat the wall with the same disregard as Lulu has been treated all her life. Indeed, it’s not so far from the way people casually dismiss complex imagery. Perhaps some like Schigolch and Alwa need “instant relief”.

In complete contrast to the abstract Christof Loy production, Chéreau filled his stage with people – waiters, maids, actors, theatre staff. This is risky because too much activity can distract from essentials. But that’s never been an objection in literal, conservative stagings where busy surroundings are often admired. Notice how carefully the extras are positioned. Between gaps of singing, the singers can take a glass, move about, smoke, hardly missing a beat in the music. Like the music itself, they circulate.
In the theatre scene, the extra personnel in their bizarre costumes serve to highlight the contrast with “real” people. Who is in the circus after all ? At the very start of the film (not the performance) there's a shot of bejewelled and befurred climbing up the marble staircase . They don't know it yet, but they're just like the rich folk whose world keeps Lulu at bay.

Dr Schön’s fiancée appears fleetingly in the background, a glowing vision of blonde female glory, everything that Lulu isn’t. She doesn’t have to say a word, nor does Lulu. No wonder Lulu is so upset. What she wants is more than just Dr Schön. Even when she marries him she knows she’ll never have what the privileged Adelaïde took for granted. Knowing Berg’s obsession with symmetry, the presence of the fiancée makes complete sense. She’s a forerunner of Countess Geschwitz, the only person who can offer Lulu a degree of selfless comfort. Again, both Geschwitz and Adelaïde have background totally closed to Lulu. Perhaps that’s why the Countess talks of going back to Germany and to university ? What does that represent, since Geschwitz dies ? There’s something pivotal about the fiancée even if it’s not at all explicit. Berg’s cryptic puzzles are deeply embedded, often ignored.

In the Paris scene, the crowd is part of the meaning: people are milling about pretending to be powerful, but they’re all on the make. Like jungle animals pacing their cages, always watching each other. Previously, Lulu was alone, a solitary among larger groups with things to do. Now she’s one of a wider group all chasing unsavoury deals. Berg isn’t commenting on business and economics, even though he knew all about the Crash of 1929. Rather, he seems to see Lulu as part of a wider system that operates like a sinister clockwork that regulates society. This fits in with the way the music operates, its symmetries and patterns as neat as an accountant’s ledger. Indeed, the music seems to evolve on parallel levels, like multiple frames on a cinema screen. Berg’s “worlds within worlds” yet again.

Some of Chéreau’s other details I don’t yet understand from two viewings. One is the magnificent chandelier. Of course, mansions have chandeliers and you need light to lift all that dark marble, and cast strange shadows. But it serves a deeper purpose too, which I can’t yet figure. Does it relate to the little fairy-figure seen only at the beginning ? He’s astride a glittering ball of light. He’s also dressed in pale shades reminiscent of Lulu’s silks. But that is the joy of complex images. You don’t “have” to get them immediately or even all the time. Like Berg’s music, clues are elusive and what you get equates to what you put in.

There was a lot of animosity at the time the production was premiered, partly from long festering resentment of the Bayreuth Ring and the end of the Cosima mentality. Furthermore, the mystery of the Third Act caught the popular imagination. Lulu was the first modern opera to get that massive publicity in the English speraking world. A lot was hanging on who got the contracts for completion and production, financially and in terms of reputation. Fortunately after 30 years the dust has settled and most people actually know the opera well enough to make more measured assessments. Quite frankly, there's nothing shocking in Chéreau's production, and even a few insights. Along comes Christof Loy who does the opposite and draws fire too. Perhaps it's time to heed what Berg himself said apropos to Wozzeck. He was a composer not a stage director and acknowledged how things change in art and life. "I write for the future".

Please read my other posts on Lulu and on the Royal Opera House production - click on label "Berg" at right. There's lots and even a movie download.

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