Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Berg’s Lulu (it’s the three act version with the Cerha completion) recorded at Brussel’s La Monnaie in 2012 is so stuffed full of symbolism it’s really hard to fully unpack. There’s a sense that Lulu represents Everywoman, for some rather twisted definition of “woman”. She’s Lilith. She’s Pandora. She’s the Black Swan and the White Swan. She’s lost or corrupted childhood and she’s love gone wrong. Maybe she’s even the phantom of Berg’s estranged daughter. All these symbols recur again and again in various combinations. In fact, on DVD, it’s pretty much impossible to keep track of them.
We start out with the Animal Tamer and a suitably bourgeois looking audience on stage. There are also lots of stuffed animals. The Animal Tamer declaims the story of Lilith, curiously enough in English, before the opera proper starts. There are dancers and not quite pubescent girls; lots of them. They appear a lot in increasingly creepy ways. Warlikowski isn’t pulling punches. There’s extreme lighting, stuff going on in boxes and cages around the stage and lots of video projections. It’s very busy but none of it seems gratuitous. Costuming too is extreme. The Animal Tamer, and later the Gymnast, wear sort of super villain costumes. The African and Jack the Ripper have extreme make up. There’s a punk girl in there. Lulu herself varies between sexy dresses, ballet outfits and not much at all and most of the time she is en pointe.
And that’s a good transition to describing Barbara Hannigan’s portrayal of the title role. It may be the most intense and committed performance that has ever been committed to video. Mere words cannot convey how amazing she is. She’s en pointe much of the time while she’s singing. She sings an account of the role which is note perfect and searingly intense. Every twisted emotion that makes up this character is given full value in voice and body language. I’ve run out of superlatives.
The supporting cast is also extremely good. Charles Castronovo is second only to Hannigan in his ability to make great music while in extreme acting situations. Natascha Petrinsky’s Geschwitz comes off as younger than is often the case (it’s so often played by great mezzos as their swan song) and looks and sings very aptly. Dietrich Henschel is a convincing Dr. Schön and appropriately weird and deadly when he reappears as Jack the Ripper. Ivan Ludlow does more with the Animal Tamer and Gymnast than I would have thought possible. He’s menacing in every way and, especially in Act 3, that’s helped by Hannigan’s fearless approach to being manhandled. There really aren’t any weaknesses in the other parts and the dancers; both adult and the young girls of the Koniklijke Balletschool Antwerpen are astonishing. The La Monnaie orchestra sounds appropriately decadent and maniacal by turns under the baton of Paul Daniel.
I would consider this an extremely difficult production to film. Every choice of shot other than full stage leaves something out. There is so much side action and videos all over the place. I think in the circumstances Myriam Hoyer did very well to convey the spirit of the production while also getting the intensity across. She’s not helped by a video quality that just isn’t as good as the best modern recordings (DVD only, no BluRay). It’s not bad but this one really could have used the best. The Dolby surround sound too is quite good without hitting the very highest standards. Balance is occasionally a bit odd and one could use more clarity, especially in the ensembles. Still, it’s better than the stereo track which has, in my view, some real balance issues. There are no extras on the disk but the booklet contains a short explicatory note, a brilliant essay on “becoming Lulu” by Hannigan herself and a synopsis and track listing. Subtitle options are English, French, German and Dutch.
I think, despite the technical imperfections of the disk, this is one to see. Warlikowski’s production will, I suspect, reveal more and more with repeat viewings and for those who admire Hannigan (and who doesn’t?) it’s essential viewing. That said, it’s pretty strong stuff and may not make an ideal Christmas present for your maiden aunt.