Alban Berg
English National Opera
The Coliseum

Michael Colvin as The Painter/The Second Client and Brenda Rae as Lulu Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Brenda Rae and James Morris Credit: Catherine Ashmore

In a year of austerity for the ENO, one might be surprised to find such a famously difficult opera on the stage when it needs to rake in audience. Delightfully, this co-production with New York’s MET is a high point in its season and again proves the value of wide-ranging programming.

Artist William Kentridge directs Berg’s challenging opera, turning it into a cinema-scape of wonders. At every moment of the drama, he provides plenty to gaze upon. It could be the performance artist twisting herself into shapes at the piano, a stage illuminated by charcoal drawings or lines of German libretto flashing across the scene.

This cluttered visual stimulus works exceedingly well and surprisingly detracts little from a fine cast delivering this mammoth opera. The characters deliver this dark tale in a reasonably literal fashion, whilst around them the cartoons and mime artists provide an almost satirical commentary on the action.

Brenda Rae (Lulu) proves that, along with a beautiful voice, she can really act. Her remarkable transformations between pouting sex object, a brazen, demanding wife, the next moment a little kitten in her faux father's lap, to the broken prostitute in act three fill out this character. She oozes confidence throughout the first acts and her suitors' devotions are quite believable as she parades around her apartments in skimpy pants and open "boyfriend" shirts.

All roles feel well cast for this production—Nicky Spence makes a fine sap as Alwa, James Morris as Schön, Willard White the demanding manipiulative Father figure and Sarah Connoly shines as the pitiful Countess. The orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth gives a balanced account of the score, but even more colour could be drawn out of Berg's intricately layered orchestration.

ENO’s commitment to producing opera in English pays off here: Richard Stokes's translation is excellent and excellent diction from the cast makes the action more immediate.

The last opera I watched was Shostakovich's The Nose. Having sat through that surreal and difficult modern work, Lulu feels positively sane. The thematically difficult and demanding action onstage starts out in act I as perhaps a bit too much, but Kentridge's layered action steadily draws you in and by act II I'd forgotten that this is a "difficult opera".

Kentridge creates an immersive world, and for once I can follow Lulu's journey and by the end be wincing at the Alwa and Shigolch's obsession over her in their artistic language. In their eyes, Lulu is reduced to no more than a painting, a symbol—they are unable to care for more than the icon of beauty and desire they see before them.

An opera where only the main two female characters develop whilst the myriad male leads remain stereotypes makes a change from the previous hundreds of years in the operatic canon. Sarah Conolly and Brenda Rae make the most of this opportunity and their superb performances alongside a strong cast make this a show worth watching.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis

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