Willy Decker’s 2000 production of Lulu in Vienna is the two-act version, the opera as completed by Berg before his untimely death. The Wiener Staatsoper asked Decker to return to stage the third-act version that it is now presenting for the first time. The modern and stark production separates the stage into two halves: a semicircular wall with doors carved in, and black background above, lined with steps. The wall is in grainy light wood. Black ladders are used to connect the two halves of the stage, the “arena” for main action and the dark space above for background action. The chorus of men clad in black suits and hats observe and comment on the action down below from the steps above. But the space is also put to good use to show us off-stage actions that are usually not shown: Lulu’s foray into her dancing career and her public fainting when confronted by her lover Dr Schön with his finance; her prostitution on the streets of London while her father figure Schigolch, Schön’s son Alwa (Lulu’s fourth husband), and her admirer, Countess Geschwitz stay in the room below. The two worlds come together towards the end of the opera, as the men climb down the ladders to join Jack the Ripper in surrounding Lulu, each yielding a knife to strike a fatal blow.

Wolfgang Bankl (The Animal Trainer) and Agneta Eichenholz (Lulu)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

The curtain opened while the theater was still lit to show Lulu in white revealing flock sitting on top of a red ladder with her back to the audience. The circular wall, lit in bright red, foretold Lulu’s fate. While the opera may be about the struggle of sexes, men’s desire to dominate and create their ideal woman, and her defiance in the form of her utter passivity and lack of will and conscience, the production made it clear that the opera is about Lulu herself. She was always the center of the action. The painting of Lulu that figures in many scenes was modeled after René Magritte’s L'Évidence éternelle, enhancing the sense of Lulu as a fragmented and incomplete figure, as the painting consisted of five small pictures of various parts of a female nude. The final coup de théâtre was to have Lulu, her white dress bloody, collapse and die  with her back against one of the paintings; she truly became one with her image.

Angela Denoke (Countess Geschwitz) and Agenta Eichenholz (Lulu)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Lulu is an ensemble opera par excellence, with many characters populating her universe with ithe mportant task of conveying their sense of the femme fatale. Bo Skovhus, as Dr Schön and Jack the Ripper, dominated the cast with his dramatic stage presence and incisive singing. Tall, lanky and bald, with his penetrating baritone expressing his conflicted emotion towards Lulu, he was convincing as “the only man I ever loved”, as Lulu lamented after shooting him. While Franz Grundheber may no longer have enough vocal power, he was a charismatic actor with excellent diction as Lulu’s father figure, one of the few characters to survive her. Alwa, a naive and spineless man at Lulu’s mercy, requires a lyric tenor of youthful vigor. Herbert Lippert’s bright voice fulfilled part of the requirement, but his high notes often failed to soar high and lacked clarity. Angela Denoke portrayed Geschwitz as a diffident and apologetic lesbian. Her high notes still shone, especially in the final scene, but her lower notes were not always audible. Smaller roles were all well sung and performed.

Agneta Eichenholz (Lulu) and Bo Skovhus (Dr Schön)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

But Lulu is all about the title character. The role requires a soprano of an enormous vocal range, over two octaves, with expressive vocal agility and superior acting skill. There was no question that Agneta Eichenholz belongs to a small group of sopranos who have all the requisite qualities to succeed. Her voice had both clarity and warmth, and her high notes, even at their limits, were never harsh, but beautiful and on pitch. She moved with waif-like ease and nonchalance, detached from all the fuss going on around her. Most impressive was her ability to move from one vocal style to the next, recitative/conversation to high flying vocal drama without hesitation or break. In a word, she looked and sounded natural as Lulu, and not trying to act as Lulu; no mean feat.

Agneta Eichenholz (Lulu) and Franz Grundheber (Schigolch)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Under Ingo Metzmacher’s conducting, the orchestra played Berg’s music with elegance and sophistication. Rather than emphasizing the brash and ear-piercing extremes of brass and percussion, strings and woodwinds were given freer rein to express lush melodies and ironic twists in the score. The lowering of the curtain at interludes enabled the audience to focus on the music. Metzmacher was mindful of his singers and often lowered the orchestral volume so they could be audible. But such support seemed unnecessary for Agneta Eichenholz, whose Lulu triumphed on her own and with her own terms.