Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lulu at The Royal Danish Opera

Lulu, Det Kongelige Teater - Copenhagen, October 15 2010

Stene, Lodahl, Reuter, Bundgaard, van Hal, Fremmerlid, Kristensen

Michael Boder ..... Conductor
Stefan Herheim ..... Director
 Heike Scheele ..... Set designer

Sine Bundgaard ..... Lulu
Randi Stene ..... Countess Geschwitz
Elisabeth Jansson ..... Theatrical dresser/Gymnast/Groom
Peter Lodahl ..... Painter/Negro
Johan Reuter ..... Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper
Johnny van Hal ..... Alwa
Magne Fremmerlid ..... Animal tamer/Theatre manager/Athlete
Sten Byriel ..... Schigolch
Michael Kristensen ..... Prince/Marquis Casti Piani/Manservant
Anders Jakobsson ..... Professor Hunidei/Doctor/Puntschu
Lina Johnson ..... 15 year old girl
Elisabeth Halling ..... Her mother
Josefine Andersson ..... A craftsman
Waltteri Torikka ..... A journalist
Jakob Vad ..... A servant

Det Kongelige Kapel, The Royal Danish Orchestra

And so the long awaited premiere of Lulu took place last night.  In one sentence: it was a superbly directed show with a supreme musical quality by both the singers and the orchestra.

Lulu is slowly becoming one of my favorite operas. It seems surreal that it was composed at the beginning of the 20th century: it is so contemporary musicwise, and the subject it treats and the way it treats it was too avantgarde even in 1980's. Then again knowing how enormously progressive --in terms of science and arts-- was the beginning of the last century, I guess one should bot be all that surprised.

The major musical novelty of this particular production is that the third act is not the standard one, completed by Friedrich Cerha, but by  Eberhard Kloke. It's supposed to be more contemporary and after one listening I obviously cannot tell whether or not I prefer one or another, but I did not have impression it was more contemporary. It was well fitting the previous two acts but a bit more 'melodical' [there I said it! ;)]

Although I try as hard as I can, it is difficult to resist comparing to my previous recent experience with this opera. While the show in Salzburg was rather disappointing in terms of music (in spite of a very good cast), here  we benefited from the amazing orchestra performing in one of the best and most beautiful venues in the world, and all that under the baton of extremely inspiring maestro Michael Boder. The second act is always tricky for the conductor as the superposition of structures/patterns in the score becomes overwhelming and if you don't manage to discern them well with the orchestra, it all becomes mess and ultimately boring (which is what happened in Salzburg last summer). That's where Boder did a particularly brilliant job. Bravo to him and to this fantastic orchestra!
Quite unusual but definitely praise-worthy is the fact that no member of the orchestra left the pit during the entire performance last night. That kind of discipline reflected in their performance.

We would not feel that musical greatness as such if the singers did not match the level. If I had to pick one who impressed me the most then that would be Johan Reuter. What a singer, what an actor! This was simply enormous. I guess everyone finds his own role in his career and this one must be a perfect fit for Reuter. Sine Bundgaard is wonderful as Lulu. The role is very difficult vocally and she is not all that experienced to cope with stress of being the center of everything happening on the stage, in a scenically complicated production by Stefan Herheim, and sing it all impeccably in front of many people coming from all parts of Europe to see this long awaited show. I am mentioning all that to say that I was more than impressed how she did. From the very beginning she came out strong and sustained that level until the end. Brava! I don't know how she would do at the Felsenreintschule (for instance) but what she sis last night in Copenhagen was wonderful. Johnny van Hal was my surprise #3 because I remember to have seen him as Tristan in Copenhagen a year and a half ago and there he was struggling, suffering and torturing us. So last night I expected him to be OKish (I know, "Alwa is not Tristan!" argument, but still...) No, the man came on the stage and sang with an impressive volume, with perfect ease, and with a very good scenic presence. Peter Lodahl --the same Lodahl who we saw at the Komische Oper in Berlin as Alfredo (Traviata) and Renaud (Armide)-- apparently became a member of the DKT team and last night showed at his absolute best.  Randi Stene and Sten Byriel are much more known outside of Denmark than their costars and their brilliance last night was not a surprise to me. Just a pleasure to see them performing in good form.  All the small roles were very well performed too. It is one of those productions where everything seems to work perfectly well and with no weak link in the chain. Ah yes, we don't know much about him because he's the member of the DNO-Oslo opera troop but Magne Fremmerlid is a stunning singer too.

And so I arrive to the staging part. Heike Scheele cleverly combined the turning podium  on which the small stage is installed and surrounded by two circular walls that look like a cylinder cut under a sharp angle. These walls can move to uncover the inside space (the stage with occasionally turning platform on it). Backstage (of that small stage) is used to be either the painter's workshop, or Lulu's apartment, or her dressing room, or her home with Alwa and Schigolch. Special props to Gesine Völlm for the fantastic costumes.

This is how the stage looked like before the beginning of the show

This is the show which is the least deconstructed of all the Herheim's show I've seen so far. On one hand that was expected for two reasons: (1) Even though there were several new productions in recent years this opera remains relatively unknown to broader audience and a narrative staging is almost mandatory; (2) Libretto for this opera is so rich and it is a sheer pleasure to "tell it like it is". Of course, Herheim place it in such a way that the story gets in depth. While the main dramatic action happens within the walls, on the walls and on the top of the small stage you can see a bunch of living-dead creatures -- the phantoms lolling around the life of Lulu's, all being the victims of falling in love with her and ended in death. At crucial points starting from which the death of any man entering the life of Lulu would be just a question of time, they would gather closer to the stage and start laughing. After every man's death (dr Goll, the painter, dr Schön...) they would come to carry him to the dressing table, put him in a white costume, white powdered his face, and he would become their fellow ghost.

Now, the deconstruction occurs in Act 3, which is not only musically but also scenically surprising. First Alwa is brilliantly portrayed as a composer, as an artist who is fascinated by Lulu. While the others are sexually attracted to her, for Alwa Lulu is his muse.

In Act-3 the colony of living-dead's becomes too large and too heavy a burden for Lulu to carry, and the ending is actually happening in her head. She is totally destroyed, abandoned and humiliated (only Countess Geschwitz will remain faithful to her -- and will die after her!) It's a payback time and the real and fictional world meet, the ghosts dress up in trench coats, put the melon hat and make a threatening crew armed with umbrellas -- just like in Magritte's painting:

[Spoiler Alert!] So the ending of Lulu accelerates with a black man coming. Herheim chooses that person to be the Painter who after his death was in the company of ghosts. He smears a black color on his face to make himself visible to Lulu, who is terrified. Alwa wanted to chase him away because he was annoyed and not because he was particularly protective of Lulu. To the very end he sees Lulu as his muse helping him to write music... He gets killed by the Painter's ghost.
Jack the Ripper is in fact the ghost of dr Schön. He is a leader of the whole colony of ghosts (dressed as I mentioned above). He will push Lulu to the sofa placed at the center of the small stage. The other ghosts will join him and surround the sofa and they will all stab Lulu by their umbrellas.  Countess Geschwitz then arrives to lament her beloved Lulu, and Jack the Ripper (un-RIP-ed dr. Schön) comes to stab her too. With that death Lulu and all who loved her ended dead.

Actually the idea of Lulu going to hell happens gradually: for example Schigolch, the Acrobat and the Schoolboy are all ghostly creatures. That all makes the story happening in parallel on both real and fictitious sides, reflecting Lulu's real and mental side. The border between the two becomes progressively blurred and in the end Lulu is in fact mentally dead.

If you had doubts on why Stefan Herheim is named the best opera director 3 times so far, and you couldn't get to see his Parsifal or his Rosenkavalier, then you have to come to Copenhagen, Oslo or Dresden to see this show... and then everything will be clear to you. ;)
He never goes for the spectators' cheap feelings: when the story becomes too dark he adds something funny, when it becomes "too funny" he brings the backside of it... and it is all extraordinarily in sync with music. The crowd present in auditorium last night loved it!

I'll make a separate post about the Danish Royal Opera house...

A few photos (unfortunately not so good):

Many folks from Germany (theater directors and critics) came for the occasion. I noticed two officials from La Scala too, as well as  Peter de Caluwe from La Monnaie/De Munt...

Sorry for the typos... gotta see a few things before leaving Copenhagen tonight! Cheers :) 


  1. Wow!Sounds a brilliant night ignited by a brilliant group of artists on a brilliant stage installation!
    what about people's reflection about Stefan’s Job?

  2. He became famous by now and since his Rosenkavalier in Stuttgart I don't think he will get booed any time soon.

    So yes the folks left the theater in enchanting mood (it felt so on the boat back to Nyhavn street ;) )