American Lulu; Prom 68; Proms Chamber Music 8 – review

King's theatre, Edinburgh; Royal Albert Hall; Cadogan Hall, London
A jazzy reworking of Berg's Lulu loses all focus. And the Proms get melancholy

News that the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth had composed her own interpretation of Alban Berg's Lulu set bells ringing, initially out of curiosity. In the event they may as well have been clanging in undisguised alarm. American Lulu had a rough reception at its Berlin premiere last year. Would a new co-production, by John Fulljames with Scottish Opera and the Opera Group, reveal its worth? A shorter, leaner yet still voluptuous Lulu, faithful to Berg's dangerous original, might emerge. Even if no one feels a need for such a thing, it could be of interest.

If only. Of the sounds that linger in the memory from the Edinburgh performance, the most dominant is that of seats being upturned as members of the audience crept out. Of course most stayed to the end. Yet in the context of live theatre, half a dozen or so departing can feel like a mass exodus. The opera played without an interval and felt longer than its one hour, 40 minutes' duration.

Neuwirth (b1968) is best known in the UK for Lost Highway, staged by English National Opera five years ago and based on the David Lynch film. She responds to the challenge of reworking material she holds in esteem. Her Lulu, the ambiguous child-woman femme fatale created by Wedekind and turned into an opera by Berg in 1935, has become a black woman in 1950s New Orleans and 1970s New York, with civil rights and Martin Luther King as a backdrop (snatches of his speeches are incorporated).

The story is told from Lulu's viewpoint, reversing the potency of the original: namely that she is an unknowable, shadowy construct of men's fantasies. The Californian-born Angel Blue, in the title role, did her best in tricky circumstances, singing the unexciting vocal lines with all the variety she could muster. She and the deliciously smoky Jacqui Dankworth, as a reinvention of the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, had nice jazzy moments in the last act, with the rest of the score being a strange porridge of Berg and big-band. A quartet of saxophones, drum kit, electric guitar and synthesiser joined forces with single pairs of strings and the prominent low belches of tuba and bass trombone.

If the sounds were at times beguiling, the vital handicap was the staging. The ensemble – musicians from Scottish Opera – was arranged in tiers at the rear. Images were projected on a sleazy, fringed, golden-rain curtain in front. Characters came and went through the curtain, ever visible. You could see them wait, arrive, exit. It was difficult to find a focus for the action. Gerry Cornelius conducted with fine commitment, also shown by the cast which included Donald Maxwell, Paul Reeves and Robert Winslade Anderson. Try it in London at the Young Vic (13-24 Sep).

The Proms risked melancholy before the Last Night extravaganza. Vasily Petrenko, who caused mild uproar by apparently dissing and dismissing women conductors, conducted the Oslo Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, with Baiba Skride negotiating the poetry of Szymanowski's Violin Concerto. She plays with delicacy and steel. The concert was all well played, but the works chosen all seemed to inhabit a similar nostalgic Russian-Polish soundworld.

Earlier the same day (Chamber Music 8), the tenor Ian Bostridge, the lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the top viol ensemble Fretwork shed and shared the tears and dark passions of John Dowland. It was tough emotion for a Monday lunchtime but worth every dying fall: the musicianship was peerless. One of Dowland's most grief-stricken chromatic fantasies, Farewell Fancy, provided a timely if lachrymose goodbye to a fine Cadogan Hall series at the end of an altogether golden season of Proms.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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