It’s a brave composer who decides to mess with Alban Berg’s twentieth-century classic. ‘Lulu’, unfinished at his death in 1935, is the tale of a troubled siren and her liaisons with a cast of sleazy men – from her initial snaring of a wealthy husband to a final encounter with Jack the Ripper, via imprisonment and prostitution.
But who better to update it than fellow Austrian Olga Neuwirth. The fortysomething composer’s contributions are bold (demonstrating her own prowess for complex ensemble writing) and playful – the use of a recorded organ for the interludes adds a cinematic touch to Berg’s ‘film sequence’, and the easy transportation of Weimar jazz to its home in New Orleans.
This show has been generally maligned by critics on the basis of Neuwirth’s cuts, re-orchestration, and new additions to the original score, plus the element of a Deep South civil rights theme – featuring American soprano Angel Blue’s Lulu as a black singer in the ’60s and incorporating recordings of Martin Luther King’s speeches – claiming it does a disservice to the original. However, while Berg’s lengthy opera may be a masterpiece on paper (its complex architecture, moulding numerous musical forms in serial style, cleverly encoded meanings through the arcana of notation), it is far from dramatic. It is a mere sequence of caricatures fleeting through the downward trajectory of a woman who is herself a cipher. The music and vocal writing are uncompromisingly dissonant (everyone sings in individual tone rows – Berg was a disciple of Schoenberg), and although the black exploitation element does not significantly add anything to the moral of the story, Neuwirth should perhaps be applauded for, at least, giving it some thematic context.
Director John Fulljames has accounted for the small stage and set proceedings within the confines of a beaded curtain, with all its seedy connotations, while a wardrobe on stage left provides Lulu with her costume changes as the 1960s roll on into the ’70s. And the star of the show is undoubtedly Blue, who brings glamour, charm and a formidable voice to this difficult title role. She is ably abetted by jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth, who plays a wasted cabaret singer. Of the rest of the cast, baritone Donald Maxwell makes a strong presence as the ageing Dr Bloom, and Robert Winslade Anderson looks great as Clarence – Lulu’s pimp.
Conductor Gerry Cornelius handles the difficult score with precision. And while the 30-strong London Sinfonietta is on fine form, from their elevated position on stage behind the singers, in this small theatre with its warm acoustic, the result is astonishingly loud. That combined with the fact that Berg and Neuwirth’s writing is insistently intense, may well account for the small but significant number of escapees from the shell-shocked audience. Jonathan Lennie