Warlikowski, Krzysztof


LuluAlban Berg - Lulu

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2012 | Paul Daniel, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Barbara Hannigan, Natascha Petrinsky, Frances Bourne, Tom Randle, Dietrich Henschel, Charles Workman, Pavlo Hunka, Ivan Ludlow, Albrecht Kludzuweit, Rúni Brattaberg, Mireille Capelle, Beata Morawska, Benoît De Leersnyder, Gerard Lavalle, Charles Dekeyser, Anna Maistriau, Rosalba Torres Guerrero, Claude Bardouil | La Monnaie Internet Streaming

As a work that it was necessary to subject to some interpolation of the music score on account of its final Act being left largely unfinished by the composer at the time of his death in 1935, there’s a richness to Lulu that leaves it open to infinite rearrangement of its elements. The openness of its subject - the eternal ambiguity that is Lulu, or indeed the eternal ambiguity that is the fate of a woman in the modern world - and the nature of the writing means that even within the two acts that were fully scored by Alban Berg, there is a multiplicity of meaning that can be applied to its themes through the imposition of emphasis on different elements of the work. For Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his 2012 production for La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels (viewed here via the opera house’s internet streaming service), the principal idea that is emphasised - the one that expresses the inner nature of Lulu before it becomes corrupted by the reality of her circumstances - is that of her childhood ambition to be a successful dancer.

To add further weight to this idea - a valid idea that doesn’t needs any further justification - Warlikowski refers to a little-known biographical detail in Berg’s life, an unacknowledged daughter, Albine, who he fathered with a woman twice his age who worked for the family. Later in life, Albine - a painter and a model - made contact with Berg, looking for a father or a father-figure, but also hoping perhaps to be taken seriously through her association with Berg in her dream of being an artist. For the director, it’s hard not to consider that the nature of this relationship would have found its way into the composition of Lulu, and it’s certainly an interesting detail that adds to the mystery and ambiguity of the work. Tied in with this is the parallel writing, incorporating elements of Lulu that would be used for the scoring of the unfinished third act in 1979 by Friedrich Cerha, of the violin concerto which would become a requiem for the 17 year old daughter of Alma Mahler and architect Walter Gropius. Another less likely reference that Warlikowski seems to drawn upon to express this desire to be a successful artist, the internal pressures that reveal cracks in the female psyche and the requiem “to the memory of an angel”, is Darren Aronofsky’s lurid melodrama ‘Black Swan‘.

The most obvious reference to this is in an extended dance sequence added to the end of the first act, where a dancer in a black tutu (Rosalba Torres Guerrero), stripping down to waist, performs the dance of the dying swan with extraordinary intensity, but there are other rather disturbing references that have a David Lynch quality (particularly with dual-killing at the end of the work of the blonde Lulu and the dark Countess Geschwitz), with dark masked figures always on the stage, in the background and on occasions taking over the roles of other characters who are complicit in her downfall. Young girls in ballet outfits also populate the stage, often within a glass cage - at least one of whom is presumably meant to represent Lulu’s innocence - but others reflect explicit references in the work to the sale into prostitution and the exploitation of women. Most directly however, Lulu herself is frequently dressed in tutus and dancer costumes, moves around en pointe, dancing to her doom.

Barbara Hannigan throws herself fearlessly into the role, but there’s really no other way to play Lulu. There’s a necessary balance that must be struck between a sense of abandon to her fate and the discipline that is required to maintain her sense of self, and playing the role as a dancer works very well with this idea. Hannigan was involved with the dance/opera collaboration in her last role this season at La Monnaie - Pascal Dupasin and Sasha Waltz’s Passion - and she puts the strength, flexibility and stamina demanded in that role to good use here, being metaphorically flung around and twisted, but also physically rolling around, holding dance poses and singing at the same time, while also being in a state of undress in provocative positions. Hannigan’s superb control of her high range and light soprano was perfect for the role of Lulu, and evidently it was tested to its limits here, with additional demands placed on the role by the nature of the dancing, but she was impressively capable throughout. She perhaps doesn’t have the robustness or the experience required for the darker side of her character’s development and downfall in the latter half of the work, but it could also be that the direction and the limitations of the concept (or its expansiveness) didn’t really give her a clear enough focus to work with. Regardless, Hannigan brought her own focus and intensity to the part and, by any standard, this was simply an extraordinary performance of Lulu.

There are many personalities and realities wrapped up within the complex powerplay of characters, in Berg’s extraordinary score and in Friedrich Cerha’s completion of the work that make this a difficult work to grasp entirely, and this production at least tries to capture the whole range of possibilities that this gives rise to within its design. It looks terrific, with a great deal going on in the foreground and the background - almost too much to take in really. Effective use is made of screens and projections, with additional dancers and figures presenting a disturbing freak-show display in a glass cage and a final act that is set in a ballet school dormitory (by way of an underground station) that feels frightening and exploitative. This Lulu was decadent where it ought to be, wild and abandoned, but also precise and intense on the points that matter. With a lavish production filled with ideas and resonances, Lulu’s extremely complex cast of personalities was given additional force through an all-round strong cast. Natascha Petrinsky brought a softer, more vulnerable but strong sensibility to the usually difficult to characterise Countess Geschwitz, Charles Workman was a handsomely voiced and driven Alwa, and Dietrich Henschel suitably and impressively menacing as Dr. Schön and Jack The Ripper.

This production of Lulu is available to view on-line for free for 21 days until 28th November, through the La Monnaie web site. Subtitles are available only in French and Dutch.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Pietari Inkinen, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Heike Grötzinger, Ekaterina Scherbachenko, Alisa Kolosova, Elena Zilio, Simon Keenlyside, Pavol Breslik, Ain Anger, Ulrich Reß | Live Internet Streaming, 25 March 2012

The manner in which elements of Eugene Onegin relate closely to the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s own life have often been remarked upon, and it undoubtedly contributes to the deep emotional and romantic sweep of the opera, so it’s surprising that – to my knowledge at least – the unspoken subtext within the work hasn’t really been brought out explicitly before in any modern production.

That subtext is, of course, related to Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his homosexuality. At the same time that the composer was writing Eugene Onegin, he had himself started a correspondence with the patron of many of his works, Nadezhda von Meck, an intimate relationship that held a certain awkwardness since the two of them were reluctant to meet each other in person. In May 1877, Tchaikovsky also received a love letter from a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova. Believing that destiny was in some way playing a hand, and that marriage would help him deny his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky ill-advisedly married Milyukova in July 1877, and immediately regretted the decision. The marriage was a complete failure and led to a mental breakdown and attempted suicide on the part of the composer.

In the opera that Tchaikovsky was writing at the same time, Eugene Onegin, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, Onegin famously receives a gushing letter from a devoted admirer, Tatyana, a young, bookish, innocent, romantic girl living on a country estate who immediately falls in love with the handsome visitor introduced by their neighbour Lensky. Cruelly rejecting her declaration of love, Onegin claims that he’s not cut out for marriage, cannot bear the idea of being tied down when he is young and when there are so many other options to explore, certain that any marriage between them would inevitably become dull and routine.

Onegin

There would have undoubtedly been some identification on the part of Tchaikovsky with this situation, which certainly at least contributes to the lush romanticism of the score, so it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that Onegin may well have similarly rejected the young girl because he is gay and that, at the end when he comes to regret his callous dismissal of Tatyana after a life of empty and purposeless abandon, it’s possible to see something of the composer’s own dilemma, hoping unrealistically and impossibly for the security of a marriage relationship that would be more acceptable to society.

Actually, having made the parallel and having watched the Bavarian State Opera’s attempt to put something similar across on the stage, I can see why there’s a reluctance to characterise Eugene Onegin as a gay man. It takes some nerve to update a classic work in this way, altering the sexual orientation of the main character in one of the most romantic works ever written, no matter how closely it mirrors the actual real-life circumstances of the composer. As a subtext, it’s certainly something interesting to keep in mind, but it’s a bit more difficult to make it work convincingly on the stage. Accordingly, there’s a sense that while the director might like to make more of the idea, there’s undoubtedly a need to tread carefully with the material at the same time. So in some respects, while there is a feeling that there is some holding back from taking these ideas too far, even what there is here in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production is more than controversial enough.

Rather delightfully, the production is set in the 1970s, a period that is by no means arbitrary, coinciding with the age of growing sexual expression and liberty where coming out was more acceptable in a way that Tchaikovsky – or indeed Onegin – could never have done in their day. I’m not sure that this would have been the case in Russia in the seventies, but (quite the opposite of the recent De Nederlandse production by Stefan Herheim) there’s nothing here in this production that is culturally specific to Russia. So while the first act is by no means anything like the Larina country estate, it at least looks like a fairly well-off family anywhere in Europe during the seventies. I say delightful, and that’s because it’s a loving recreation of the decade in terms of design and colour, with vinyl chairs, bell bottom trousers, coloured leather armchairs and moon landings on the TV, the stage animated by disco lights and dancing queens.

Onegin

It’s the idea of dancing queens however that is the most controversial aspect of Warlikowski’s production, which features Full Monty routines and shirtless males in cowboy hats and some even in bikinis, shuffling around through the famous Polonaise of the opera. I say shuffling, because it’s very tame stuff indeed, lacking the nerve and the verve to really make the production challenging, even if it is still more than enough to make traditional opera-goers very uncomfortable indeed. I don’t know what the Munich audience made of this or of Onegin’s kiss with his “close friend” Lensky, but I thought it was delicately handled within the context – the spat between the two men a rejection of Onegin’s advances, leading Lensky to throw down the challenge of a duel to defend his honour and reputation before a watching public.

If it wasn’t much to look at, and at times rather more static and all-purpose than one would like, the stage design suited the context setting well, looking most of the time like a 70s’ discotheque, but capable of being transformed reasonably effectively into a family living room or Tanya’s bedroom, allowing the first two acts to flow together without an interval. The duel between Onegin and Lensky takes place over a bed, which was something of a daring touch, but one that worked surprisingly well, principally due to the fine performances – in terms of both singing and acting – of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik. Keenlyside in particular carried the weight of Onegin’s inner struggle without appearing arrogant, adding to the tragedy of the outcome and his final breakdown. Ekaterina Scherbachenko perhaps didn’t carry the vocal strength or force of some of the best recent more mature Tatyanas (Renée Fleming, Krassimira Stoyanova), but she expressed the youthful innocence, confusion and mortification of her character much more convincingly, singing well and without mannerisms.

The idea of approaching Eugene Onegin from a gay perspective is a challenging one, as is setting it in the 1970s, and there were accordingly some inconsistencies in taking this approach and a static quality at times to the stage direction. The strength of the singing and dramatic performances however – notably from Keenlyside and Tatyana – and a good account of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful, heart-breaking score by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Pietari Inkinen, combined to brilliantly bring out the real strength of the work as well as the underlying subtext that undoubtedly contributes to its power and tragedy.