ENO’s production of Berg’s Lulu, first mounted three years ago, is one of its outstanding successes. Richard Jones, the director, seems to feel a special affinity with Berg, to judge from his recent and wonderful Wozzeck for WNO. Yet Berg’s two operas couldn’t be more different. Stravinsky complained, as many people have, about the big orchestral interlude just before the final brief scene of Wozzeck, that it seems to be telling us how to feel. ‘As if there were any question about how we should feel!’ Stravinsky added. And, however much one loves that stretch of music on its own terms, it’s hard to disagree. Whereas the over-riding feeling I always have at a performance of Lulu is exactly, ‘How should I be feeling?’
On stage we see a variety of incidents, sexual and violent, generated by or around the central figure, about whom there is no agreement even as to whether she is active or passive. As husband after husband meets a sticky end, out of shock or jealousy, leaving Lulu unconcerned except possibly at the mess, it’s hard not to take refuge in laughter, or feel that this is the blackest of black comedies. Yet quite often, though by no means consistently, the orchestra aches with compassion at least as much as it does in Wozzeck, opening up a chasm between how we respond to its promptings and how we feel about the action and words, and in what way they are to be taken as a commentary on the action.
The Prologue, in which the Animal Tamer — in this production, the recruiter for an audience for ‘Adult Entertainment’ — invites us to watch the goings-on in the human zoo we are about to witness, suggests a Brechtian detachment from whatever it is we are about to witness.