She begins as she will end, with a blood-curdling scream. The Berlin Staatsoper’s Lulu takes the idea of retrograde inversion to its logical conclusion. Everything is backwards and upside-down, like some of the passages in Alban Berg’s incomplete score.
When the curtain goes up, the men are already dead. Stage director Andrea Breth presents Lulu as a vision of eternal damnation, her characters doomed to endless repetitions of their mortal character flaws. This might sound more interesting than it is. Erich Wonder has built Breth a ruin of a set: wrecked cars piled on the left, the rest of the space randomly divided by functionless, wall-like frames, all of it surrounded by the curve of a giant theatre auditorium – gloom and grime for the collective entertainment of the Staatsoper’s high-carat Festtage audience.
The undead men, in almost-identical black suits (costumes by Moidele Bickel), move in trance-like patterns around Lulu. She is the only bright thing on the stage, in a Barbie-doll silver lamé party dress. She stares, zombie-like, into the audience, delivering her lines as monologues. Without the surtitles, we would have no idea what is meant to be going on.
This is the first outing for David Robert Coleman’s new version of Lulu’s third act. In 1935 Berg died, leaving the score unfinished, and since its 1979 premiere Friedrich Cerha’s completion has been generally accepted as gospel. But Breth and her team have opted to excise Berg’s Paris scene and the prologue; Cerha’s version would not work with these cuts, so Coleman was commissioned to bridge the gap.
Coleman brings a lightness of touch to the task that, in a less grim staging, could delight. He expands on the Wedekind tune that Berg quotes, adding cow-bells, marimbaphone, steel drums and a hint of jazz. His writing is more transparent and less portentous than Cerha’s. It is a version that ought to have a life beyond this production.
Barenboim, as if in conscious counterpoint to the staging, conducts with lucid romanticism. His Berg sounds as self-evident as Schubert, unfolding with its own lush, bittersweet logic as the evening wears on, drawing us into a sound world as seductive as the production is cold. The Staatskapelle plays superbly. The cast members, who spend most of the time facing the conductor, sing uniformly well.
Mojca Erdmann is an ethereal, feather-light Lulu, accurate as a laser, more innocent child than calculating woman. Deborah Polaski makes a mild, resigned Geschwitz, a gentle opposite to the men, with all their grimy drive. Breth’s staging robs them of their individuality, just as she excises the narrative from the story, leaving only bleak repetition. What should be intensely gripping tips frequently into intensely dull; only the music redeems this laboured feat.