American Lulu is, to mix a metaphor, the child of a great number of cooks. Co-produced by The Opera Group, Bregenzer Festspiele, Scottish Opera and the Young Vic in association with the London Sinfonietta, it was co-commissioned by Komische Oper Berlin and The Opera Group. It is also the subject of a lengthy creative legacy; Alban Berg’s unfinished opera, Lulu, is based upon a Wedekind play of the same name, and the whole thing has been judiciously transposed, edited, touched up, and finished by Olga Neuwirth, a respected contemporary Austrian composer.
A shame, then, that after all this input American Lulu still feels so fractured, caught between its incomplete originality and this new conception. Neuwirth has moved the play out of the old world and into the new, settling it down in mid-century America, beginning in 1950’s New Orleans and ending in 1970’s New York. The orchestra has slid further into its tricky symbiosis with a jazz band, and though much of the phrasing that fills the silences is masterful, it suffers in its relationship with the voices, coming across as underpowered; a few complimentary background strokes rather than a guiding, shaping hand.
The performance is nominally set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, but other than interludes in which sections of civil rights speeches played it was hard to see any development that merited this referencing, though perhaps that is the point. Lulu is a desirable black girl in a world of white men; married to a wealthy professor she is having an affair with a photographer. Her husband has a heart attack upon finding her closeted with her admirer, and Lulu lavishly rejoices in her new wealth and freedom, before quickly ceding to the photographer and marrying again. As the opera continues the feedback swells; more deceased husbands, ever more admirers. There is always a man on hand to attempt to take possession of Lulu, and uncaringly she lets them, or rather lets them think that they have, as her eyes are always wide for whoever might be coming next.
She is an exterminating angel, a bright light, and an object. Cruel, kind, complex, her part is thrilling in its duplicity and capriciousness, and it is performed perfectly be Angel Blue, whose bold voice shapes and fills the evening, flickering effortlessly between the captivating and the callous. A shame then, that other than the mercurial Lulu, much of the rest is leaden. The men’s parts are ponderous next to the dexterity of Lulu, a fitting comment upon the conception of the work, but hardly exciting listening. The role of Dr Bloom is for a shouter rather than a singer, and varied though similar complaints can be levied against many of the parts other than Lulu’s.
The libretto is ponderous, and the American accents atrocious, but the voice of Lulu swims above and through it all, and is encouraging enough to make this intriguing though flawed piece worth viewing, but strictly for those with a taste for the complexities and atonality of modernist opera.
The staging, too, is cluttered, and the multimedia effects are negligible, except for a monstrous video sequence halfway through Act II. Berg actually stipulated its presence with extremely detailed notes in the original Lulu, but it is doubtful he would have approved of this ham-fisted animation with its ugly mixture of photography and crude drawing.
Ultimately the whole piece flags terribly in the final Act, where Berg’s work runs out entirely and Neuwirth is left to her own creative devices; had the production ended with Lulu’s fleeing to New York it would be an interesting and challenging piece, as it currently runs, it is bloated and unsatisfactory. A bold failure then, but one which the Young Vic should be commended for staging – it will struggle to find an audience, but to give something so different a staging at a high-profile London theatre is an encouraging sign for innovation.