American Lulu, Komische Oper Berlin

Lulu, her adoptive father and her lesbian admirer are black, and the action takes place amid the US Civil Rights movement to the strains of jazz and blues. Berlin’s Komische Oper is branching out. The house, which has always defined itself as a place where operas are sung in the vernacular, has made an odd decision: to perform in English.

Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu is a musical and literary re-interpretation of Alban Berg’s massive, unfinished masterpiece. And Neuwirth has a point. Frank Wedekind’s Lulu, the literary basis of Berg’s opera, is based on an outmoded idea of femininity. His child-woman seductress, ultimately punished for her promiscuity with degradation and murder, is as dated an image as the floating womb. Who better than Neuwirth to re-imagine the piece?

Together with Helga Utz, she has come up with an entirely new third act. Instead of being knifed by Jack the Ripper, Lulu now ascends to the upper echelons of New York society, a hooker with a bulging bank balance and an empty heart. Eleanor, the blues-singing reincarnation of Countess Geschwitz, abandons her.

Neuwirth is a shrewd composer with a bold imagination. She translates Berg’s complex score for 27-member jazz ensemble and Mississippi Morton Wonder Organ with such a deft touch that it is both utterly Berg and very much her own. More problematic are Utz’s text and Richard Stokes and Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon’s banal translation, peppered with repeated obscenities. Chunks of speeches from Martin Luther King, read between acts over loudspeaker, serve only to bemuse. What does Lulu have to do with US Civil Rights, and why are we being told about it today in Berlin? The logical links remain obscure.

In the title role, Marisol Montalvo delivers a glittering, passionate performance. The rest of the cast are solid, though the inclusion of Della Miles as blues singer Eleanor never quite works musically, and many of the singers struggle with English diction, making the decision to perform in a foreign language in this house all the more bemusing.

Kirill Serebrennikov’s staging quotes Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and sticks to direct narrative, with some decorative film interludes (Gonduras Jitomirksy); it is adequate but uninspired. On the podium Johannes Kalitzke holds it all together well, though the singers require amplification to be heard over the small ensemble, which they would not have with Berg’s full symphony orchestra.

The production is shared with the London Opera Group, where the English text should make more sense.

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