Depraved social climber, victimised commodity, amoral murderess, damaged child-woman – no-one can pin down Lulu, Franz Wedekind’s endlessly fascinating creation. In Dutch National Opera’s production of Alban Berg’s opera, based on Wedekind’s plays, her ungraspable essence is symbolised by a stack of drawings that constitute her portrait. The ink sketches flutter, peel off, attach themselves to the singers, and are scattered by gusts of wind.

Mojca Erdmann (Lulu) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Mojca Erdmann (Lulu)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

Artist and director William Kentridge projects their constant disassembling and reshaping in his palimpsestic animated drawings. Rorschach ink blots spreading across the set leave no doubt as to his concept of Lulu. Her admirers project their needs and desires onto her. Inevitably, she fails to fulfill them and they are driven to distraction, suicide and murder. Lulu as object only satisfies as an artist’s muse, and here she repeatedly strikes mannequin-like poses, even when not modelling. As a woman she is vapid and inert. Her seductions, deceits and murders are carried out carelessly, out of instinctual self-preservation. As soon as she is safe, she reverts to her default passivity. This is no red-lipped femme fatale, but a mousy waif, half-clad in shades of fawn or paper-white. Some of her clothes are literally made of paper and most of the time she blends into the neutral-tinted set. In contrast, the other characters wear bright costumes, which, under Urs Schönebaum’s fantastic lighting, have the feel of hand-painted photographs.

Inspired by German expressionistic woodcuts and silent films, Mr Kentridge has created a transfixing theatrical experience unified in style and concept. His filmic exploration of desire, savage and fatal, is characterised by the piteous lyricism of his drawings. Kinetic portraits of Berg and his contemporaries evoke the time of the opera’s composition, as do Sabine Theunissen’s sets. Serving as projection screens, the various interiors contain multiple depths and are dense with shadows. The most magnificent is Lulu’s bourgeois home in Act II. Another visual climax is the film spliced with text during the interlude, showing Lulu being condemned for Dr Schön’s murder and deliberately contracting cholera to escape prison.

Mojca Erdmann (Lulu) and Johan Reuter (Dr Schön) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Mojca Erdmann (Lulu) and Johan Reuter (Dr Schön)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus
The film fulfils all of Berg’s requirements and marks a stylistic fulcrum in the production. Like the rest of the pictorial flux, it was masterfully timed to the music. Replacing Fabio Luisi, who had to withdraw because of personal reasons, conductor Lothar Zagrosek accurately guided the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra through Berg’s cathedral of a score. Besides the intricate way in which it coalesces disparate musical genres, this work derives its potency from the way it throbs, hurtles and plunges within the strictures of twelve-tone technique. The RCO musicians displayed solo bravura and their trademark creamy smoothness, but, unlike the visual onslaught on stage, the music did not claw at the imagination.

In the title role, soprano Mojca Erdmann was musically proficient and successfully incarnated the fragile, vacant dancer. That her soft-grained soprano, with its disembodied top notes, also sounded fragile throughout was less than ideal. It lacked the piercing power to express Lulu’s ferocity at pertinent moments. As Lulu’s guardian and lover, Dr Schön, Johan Reuter was firm and resonant, but his character came across as uniformly stolid. Maybe he was directed to appear emotionally stultified. Whatever the reason, the conflict between Dr Schön’s need to maintain his social standing and his overwhelming attraction to Lulu remained underplayed.

Mojca Erdmann (Lulu) and Werner van Mechelen (Ein Athlet) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Mojca Erdmann (Lulu) and Werner van Mechelen (Ein Athlet)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

Daniel Brenna brought vocal heft and dramatic intensity to the composer Alwa. Werner Van Mechelen was equally strong as the Animal Tamer and the Athlete and sparks flew during their confrontation. There was hardly a weak link in the rest of the cast, and even some of the shortest roles were very finely sung, but three performances stood out. William Burden as the deluded Painter charged his excellent singing with great poignancy. If there is a laureateship for interpreting Berg, Franz Grundheber should get one. The leading Wozzeck of his generation was truly memorable as Schigolch, Lulu’s cynical pimp and, most probably, her father. With faultless diction, steady vocalism and total authority, Mr Grundheber held the audience captive, regardless of what was happening around him. Finally, Jennifer Larmore gave a touching portrayal of the likeable Countess Geschwitz. In the last scene, in which both the Countess and Lulu meet their death, Ms Larmore sang with tragic stature, bringing the evening to a crushing close.

***11