Is it possible for us to feel a shred of sympathy for Lulu, surely one of opera’s most notorious anti-heroines, even when she meets her grizzly demise at the coda of Berg’s eponymous masterwork? I think it speaks volumes about the astonishing quality of soprano Marie Arnet’s performance that my answer to this question after seeing Welsh National Opera’s new production of Lulu is a most definite “no”.

WNO Lulu: Marie Arnet (Lulu) © Clive Barda
WNO Lulu: Marie Arnet (Lulu)
© Clive Barda

The inspiration for Berg’s own libretto was a pair of plays written by Frank Wedekind: Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). The libretto adheres faithfully to the story of Lulu, a femme fatale, who seemingly thinks nothing of seducing a series of men (and a woman) and, both intentionally and otherwise, bringing about their destruction. The final act sees Lulu reduced to working as a prostitute and living in poverty. In one of the masterstrokes of symmetry to be found throughout the opera, the three deceased suitors re-visit Lulu as clients, the last one of which turns out to be Jack the Ripper in disguise, resulting in inevitably gruesome consequences.

It is hard to believe that the first complete performance of Lulu took place as recently as 1979, 44 years after the composer died. Behind this delay was Berg’s widow, Helene, who would not countenance anybody but Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg, completing the third and final act of the opera. Schoenberg refused to complete it and so it was only after Helene’s death in 1976 that a secretly commissioned completion of the act by composer Friedrich Cerha could be unveiled. This production featured a version of Act III realised by Eberhard Kloke.

Berg’s score offers a sumptuous counterpoint to the more lurid material being portrayed on stage with a substantial orchestra being adorned with an alto saxophone, vibraphone and piano amongst other “exotic” instruments. Berg succeeded where many had failed in composing a serialist opera score and, yet, as with many of his scores, there is an innate beauty in the writing and coherence as many of the characters are given their own leitmotifs in the form of distinct tone rows. Another recurring motif is that of the doorbell/telephone, scored for triangle and/or tuned percussion. This device, both comfortably familiar and ominous, often prefixes grim or tragic events in the plot.

The orchestra of the WNO played handsomely under the sure direction of Lothar Koenigs. Even in the dry acoustic of the Birmingham Hippodrome, there was lushness to the string sound. A few multi-talented members of the orchestra had musician roles on stage. The orchestra was rarely vexed by Berg’s highly challenging score.

The opulence of the score was complemented by that of director David Pountney’s production. Johan Engels’ coolly modern set design was a contrast to the Victorian settings shown in photographs from (incomplete) early productions of the opera. Much of the action revolved around a central spiral staircase made of metal, which was surrounded by metal gantries. Garishly coloured animal heads were worn in the opening menagerie scene and these featured again both in the casino party scene and the final macabre scene, in which the animal heads had been cleverly substituted with skulls.

The opening scene saw Lulu emerge from a body bag, introduced by her creepy father figure, Schigolch, here convincingly portrayed with heavy breathing by bass Richard Angas, dressed in a Wotan-like outfit complete with cape, eye patch and spear. Schigolch is one of the few male protagonists to survive his association with Lulu. Less fortunate is Dr Schön, who is supposed to have rescued her from a pitiful childhood existence and who goes on to marry her. An indisposed Ashley Holland was replaced by baritone Paul Carey Jones, in this role. Carey Jones was a most impressive replacement and gave a commanding performance. Considering the late substitution there was palpable chemistry and tension between his character and Lulu. Lifelike effigies of Lulu’s victims were cumulatively hoisted up onto hooks above the stage for all to see and it was unfortunate, if not unexpected, that Schön’s effigy took the form of the indisposed Holland.

A further notable performance was given by mezzo-soprano Natascha Petrinsky in the role of Lulu’s lover Countess Geschwitz. This is one character who does elicit our sympathy, not so much for her love stricken desperation to please Lulu but for her touching final vow to train as a lawyer and further the cause of women’s rights, not the only somewhat tragicomic moment in this opera.

And the star of the show? This was, undoubtedly, Marie Arnet. Lulu is such a demanding role, requiring a good deal of acting as well as a huge vocal range and the ability to project above a large orchestra. Arnet’s depiction of Lulu was full of cool disdain or indifference for her victims, and her gazes out through the audience convinced me that she would not, indeed, elicit any sympathy, from me at least.