Phantom of Lilith

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.

1.pointWe 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.

2.stageAnd 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.

3.weirdThe 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.

4.thighsI 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.

5.dancersI 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.


8 thoughts on “Phantom of Lilith

  1. I’m very eager to see this but my big fear is that Hannigan makes the role a sexual predator as opposed to a more ambiguous approach. She seems a bit manic in the trailer. How does she compare to Christine Schafer or agneta eichenholz, the two finest Lulu’s I’ve ever seen? (my hope is that the chereau production with Stratas is eventually made readily available).

    • I haven’t seen Eichenholz so can’t comment there. If I had to compare Hannigan to Schäfer and Petitbon, the other recording I have, I don’t think Hannigan is more predatory. Probably that fits Petitbon better. What struck me more than anything was Hannigan’s intensity. but there’s a vulnerability in the intensity. Like Petitbon’s character she is a very damaged human being whereas Schäfer is maybe a bit cooler and more classical? She is maybe a bit manic compared to Schäfer but less so than Petitbon I think (actually hard to be more manic than Petitbon in anything!). One thing Hannigan is not is one dimensional. If/when you do get hold of this one I’s be really interested in your thoughts.

      • From what you’ve described, Hannigan sounds a bit like Stratas and Marlis Petersen, more vulnerable victim than aggressor but hyperactive and intense at the same time. I definitely hope to get a copy in the near future as I recently saw Hannigan live in Written on the Skin and thought she was absolutely incredible. You should check out Eichenholz. The entire dvd is wonderful, the finest available IMO. I’m a nut for her and Schafer because I think they understand that Lulu’s attraction is undefinable and that it largely rests with what the men around them are projecting on to them. There’s no bumping or grinding going on with them. They just stand there inscrutably taking everything in. Schafer also sings the role beautifully.

      • I’ll look out for the Eichenholz. Perhaps time to take another look at the Schäfer recording. Hard to believe it’s almost 20 years old. And Petersen is singing in the MetHD presentation this season.

        Hannigan is a phenomenon. I’ve seen her twice recently live; in Written on Skin and conducting the TSO. Incredible stage presence.

      • I would definitely look at them both. I also should add that I’m a pretty big fan of Warlikowski as well. I’ve seen several productions and while none of them are lasting favorites of mine I think that his work is always fascinating and worth seeing.

  2. Pingback: Subjective picks on DVD and Blu-ray | operaramblings

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