The appointment 18 months ago of David Pountney as artistic director and chief executive of Welsh National Opera was a sign that the company wanted a change of direction – bolder, riskier, more international. As architect of English National Opera’s Powerhouse regime and the Bregenz Festival’s recent successes, Pountney promised experience and iconoclasm. And with his first new staging in Cardiff, WNO audiences at last get a taste of his medicine. Lulu is unbelievably garish and grotesque, and you could argue that on those grounds alone, Pountney has succeeded. By refusing to please or entertain, and aiming instead to evoke the moral jungle that characterises Lulu’s world, he has been true to her creators’ vision.
The temptation with Lulu is to titillate – to present Berg/Wedekind’s amoral creature as a man-eater who falls victim to social hypocrisy. Pountney quickly disabuses us of such a notion. The cast resemble house animals in a human zoo, where the idea of beauty is a fleshy, faceless doll, as distorted as a George Grosz caricature or a Francis Bacon painting. Johan Engels’ permanent set can be read two ways – a cage on which Lulu’s victims are hung out to dry, or an oil platform with a drill charting Lulu’s rise and fall according to capitalism’s exploitative whim.
The trouble with this approach is that it is both ugly and humourless, leaving us little incentive to sympathise with Marie Arnet’s waif-like anti-heroine. Maybe Pountney needs us to reject Lulu in order to justify Wedekind’s – and, by extension, his own – contempt for bourgeois values. Strung along the stage apron in period costume, the show unfolds in a dramatic vacuum, resulting in long stretches of boredom. Pountney is not interested in character – everyone gestures in stylised poses – and he litters the performance with haphazard fragments of recorded spoken dialogue, a classic error of taste. With an Anglophone cast, why isn’t it done in English?
Two singers rise above the mess – Peter Hoare’s glorious Alwa and Alan Oke’s mesmerising Prince/Manservant. Lothar Koenigs, conducting Eberhard Kloke’s realisation of Act Three, inspires the orchestra to a reading of outstanding clarity, sensitivity and sweep, which Pountney’s ultra-contrived staging effectively sterilises.