Even to our 21st-century palates, jaded by on-screen sex, violence and degradation, the material of Alban Berg’s Lulu is pretty strong stuff. One can barely imagine the level of shock value it must have had in 1905, when Alban Berg saw the première of Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box, the second of the pair of plays on which the opera is based. With an unflinching eye, the opera explores the seamiest corners of sexual desire, the power relationships involved, and how it can deprave both the desirer and the desired.

© Catherine Ashmore
© Catherine Ashmore

William Kentridge’s production, seen at Dutch National Opera at last year's Holland Festival and at the Met a year ago, has now arrived at English National Opera. It’s the most video-heavy opera production I’ve ever seen: there is continuous projection of video animation onto the whole set – which is a perspective-distorted box with various elements that slide in and out. The animation comes in several styles: the black-and-white bold contours of German expressionist cinema or Sin City, a recurrent theme of books, naively drawn female breasts and pubis, text extracts from the German libretto. It’s striking, virtuosic, redolent of Weimar-era decadence. And it risks overpowering the entire opera: there’s so much going on visually in every corner of the stage that you’re constantly being distracted away from the main action.

James Morris (Dr. Schön), Brenda Rae (Lulu) © Catherine Ashmore
James Morris (Dr. Schön), Brenda Rae (Lulu)
© Catherine Ashmore
There are more visual effects in the shape of Pythonesque cardboard heads and giant hands, and there’s more distraction in the shape of a pair of actors: a somewhat Sally Bowles-like female draped over an onstage piano, and a servant. Joanna Dudley and Andrea Fabi acted their hearts out, but I don’t really understand why they were needed: with 27 named roles, and a Wikipedia synopsis that runs to over 4,000 words, Lulu seems plenty complex enough without the level of sensory overload with which Kentridge is imbuing it.

But I can’t fault Kentridge on his acting direction. The title role may be a caricature, but Brenda Rae acts it compellingly. As Lulu goes through husbands and lovers, all of whom end up dead, one can only watch with morbid fascination at the spiritual emptiness of a woman who understands everything about attracting men (and, indeed, women) but nothing else. The husbands fascinate also: James Morris as the urbane man-in-charge Dr Schön, Nicky Spence as his hapless son Alwa, Michael Colvin as the somewhat scatty Painter. Perhaps the only truly sympathetic character is Sarah Connolly’s Countess Geschwitz, who sacrifices everything for Lulu while fully self-aware. All were watchable, each played their part in driving the drama forward to its grisly conclusion.

Michael Colvin (the Painter), Brenda Rae (Lulu) © Catherine Ashmore
Michael Colvin (the Painter), Brenda Rae (Lulu)
© Catherine Ashmore
Musically, I find Lulu difficult. Musicologists point to its deep cleverness, with an overall palindromic structure which matches that of the drama, a separate twelve-tone row for each character, and so on. But I wasn’t sitting down analysing a score: I was in an opera house watching a performance, and while there were many, many moments of dark beauty in the music, I can’t honestly say that conductor Mark Wigglesworth succeeded in translating those individual moments and this mathematical cleverness into a deep overall emotional connection with me. Until, that is, the very last scene, when the music finally got under my skin with an aching, yearning quality that matched my empathy – a commodity in short supply in this opera – for Connolly’s Countess.

With high intensity coming from the pit coupled with the high visual intensity of the video animations around them, several of the singers struggled to hold the attention. Brenda Rae may have been magnetic as an actress, but her voice didn’t have the level of cold command to rise over the orchestra and grab the attention. The singer who did that most strongly was James Morris, crisply powerful as he is in charge of everything right until the moment of his murder. Nicky Spence gave us a lovely, clear tenor as Alwa; David Soar smoothness with just a hint of grit as the Animal Tamer/Athlete; Willard White and Sarah Connolly were in the “luxury casting” category as Lulu’s “father” Schigolch and the Countess.

Nicky Spence (Alwa), Brenda Rae (Lulu) © Catherine Ashmore
Nicky Spence (Alwa), Brenda Rae (Lulu)
© Catherine Ashmore
Berg's operas are never easy to watch – he’s far too provocative and uncompromising a composer for that. And for me, this ENO production of Lulu is easier to admire than it is to love. But if you want to be challenged dramatically, this is the opera to do it.