Alban Berg died in 1935 having completed the first two acts of Lulu and the final act in short score. The work is usually performed these days using Friedrich Cerha's 1979 completion. This production from Zurich Opera is one for the purists, using just the music that Berg wrote. So we get the first two acts followed by an orchestral version of Act III accompanying a silent film. The production is also true to the period with a beautiful art deco set and Laura Aikin, as Lulu wearing a series of sensational and provocative costumes, although you can see that she is wearing big knickers underneath the fishnet catsuit. There is only one liberty, as far as I could see: the libretto keeps mentioning a painting of Lulu, but what we see is a Damien Hirst-style sculpture of her suspended in four transparent cubes. This enables the characters in the opera to rearrange Lulu's body parts at frequent intervals.
The story can be simply summarised: Lulu is the ultimate femme fatale. Every man she has a relationship with ends up dead. But the details of the plot are quite complex and this production does nothing to simplify matters. There is a large cast of suitors and they are all dressed in black suits with black silk shirts and black slicked back hair so it becomes quite difficult to know who is dying at any particular moment.
I have got so far without mentioning the music but I suppose I must at some point. Alban Berg's twelve-tone technique is quite hard to take even for a hardened opera-lover. The orchestral sequences are not too difficult, and the male voices are recognisably musical. Sadly it is the part of Lulu herself that is the most exigent, Berg writes it as a series of bat-squeaks so that the effect on the listener is like a session at the dentist's without an anaesthetic. I find it difficult to judge the quality of Laura Aikin's vocal performance given that the role, to me, sounds so unmusical. I was originally intending to write a piece saying how unreasonable it was of Zurich Opera to give us only the first two hours of this opera but, by the end, I was pleased with my one hour remission for good behaviour.
Usually when I hear a difficult piece like this I come back to it six months later. Quite often I find all becomes clear on the second hearing. Somehow I doubt that this will be the case with Lulu. I am anticipating it with as much enthusiasm as my next visit to the dentist.
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