Opera Scotland

American Lulu 2013Scottish Opera

Read more about the opera American Lulu

Alban Berg's Lulu, even as he left it as a two-act work with a drafted final act, is undoubtedly one of the most important operas of the twentieth century. In that state, the Edinburgh Festival has imported two important stagings from Germany in 1966 and 1975. After his widow's death, a highly respected composer was commissioned to complete the work, as much as possible in the style of Berg. That, now standard, edition was mounted by Scottish Opera in 1987. Sadly, the company did not revive what was an excellent production, and since then, the piece has disappeared. We were long overdue to have another look at it, even though it is expensive to mount, with a large cast and full orchestra. Neuwirth 's adaptation made do with eight performers playing eleven characters, and a band of twenty-seven.

Just because one method of completing Lulu has appeared does not mean that has to be the last word on the subject. After all, Berg and his dramatic source Wedekind are both out of copyright and may be seen as fair game. Quite why anyone should want to do this is not entirely clear, particularly when the changes include substantial cutting and rewriting of Berg's completed work. Surely the more satisfying thing to do would have been to use Wedekind as source material for a plot relocated to the USA and compose entirely new music to an entirely new text.

Playing at 1 hour and 40 minutes without an interval, it was clear that sections of the Berg version must be cut, even allowing for the fact that Cerha's editorial and compositional work disappeared completely (if only for copyright reasons). That length immediately suggests something in the form of Salome or Elektra, and that would have been possible, indeed an attractive proposition.

Basing the orchestration on the idea of a jazz band is also an attractive idea. The piece is nearly contemporaneous with important jazz-influenced German works by Weill (Threepenny Opera) and Krenek (Jonny spielt auf). But if Berg had wanted to compose a jazz work he could presumably have done so. Indeed some conductors, such as Richard Armstrong (with WNO many years ago) have made the original orchestration sound very jazzy without any need to change it. However Neuwirth does also include fascinating references to cinema organs and other unusual sounds that kept the ear intrigued throughout the performance.

Accepting American Lulu on its own terms it was an enjoyable evening in the theatre, without any great depth. The much-vaunted insertion of civil rights movement elements from the fifties and sixties seemed to work uneasily at best, with portentous narratives on the tannoy to cover scene changes. The production and performance otherwise did everything possible for the work - it is very hard to fault any aspects of the presentation.

The musicians (from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera with the addition of sax quartet, drum kit and a few others), were arrayed in an arc rising on tiers behind the singers - an arrangement Paul Whiteman would have recognised, even if he had found the musical idiom strange. The small acting area in front was entirely adequate, and clever use was made of a translucent curtain for various projections - the Mississippi paddle-steamer looked wonderful, though this was definitely not Showboat. It also created the effect of a cage, referring back to the idea of Lulu and her victims as circus animals. The newly written third act, however,  is no improvement on the original version - the plotting is perfunctory, and very uninvolving compared with the original.

Angel Blue is as yet unknown here, but has worked extensively on the continent and appeared with ENO. The title role, like Berg's original, is long and high with demanding coloratura elements - a difficult challenge, and she coped well with the dialogue too - an excellent local debut. Jacqui Dankworth (daughter of Cleo Laine) comes more from a jazz tradition than a conventional operatic background (though her mother once made an interesting recording of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire). She sounde wonderful, and her amplification was tactfully done (was it really necessary in an intimate theatre like the King's?) But the character was under-written by comparison with Berg's original, where Countess Geschwitz is the one sympathetic and seriously tragic character, so an important element was missing.

It was good to see Donald Maxwell back in a major role, which was more in the form of pitched speech than song. The two tenor roles, Alwa and the Painter in Berg, are ineffectual characters, and remain so here, therefore difficult to act, but both Jonathan Stoughton and Paul Curievici were fine. The role of the athlete was well taken by Simon Wilding costumed as an American Football player. Clarence, the part well sung by Robert Winslade Anderson, seemed an uneasy mix of characters from the original, with elements of the Ringmaster and Schigolch combined, both narrator and pimp.

Enjoyable as American Lulu was, with plenty of attractive music beautifully performed, it still seemed a pale imitation of Berg's original. In a programme note the composer argued cogently her views on the relevance of the Lulu character to the picture of American society she was trying to create, but that didn't quite seem to come across. The bluesy idiom present for much of the time suggested an alternative area of American subject might be explored - Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird would have the racial content, though it would otherwise be very different. An author such as Tennessee Williams probably doesn't have the political ramifications - but there must be many other American literary sources that could be pillaged for operatic purposes.

Performance DatesAmerican Lulu 2013

Map List

King's Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

30 Aug, 19.15 31 Aug, 19.15

Young Vic | London

13 Sep, 19.30 14 Sep, 19.30 17 Sep, 19.30 18 Sep, 19.30 20 Sep, 19.30 21 Sep, 19.30 23 Sep, 19.30 24 Sep, 19.30

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