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William Kentridge’s Lulu review at the London Coliseum – ‘ENO on superb form’

Brenda Rae in Lulu at the London Coliseum. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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From every point of view a major undertaking for the company, Alban Berg’s Lulu, his unfinished opera about the ultimate femme fatale, returns to the Coliseum in the standard completion by Friedrich Cerha. ENO has presented the piece just once before: Richard Jones’ staging was a significant success back in 2002, though it received just one revival three years later.

The new show is the work of the acclaimed South African visual artist and animated filmmaker William Kentridge, first presented in Amsterdam in June 2015 and repeated at the New York Met last November; ENO’s distinguished former music director Mark Wigglesworth returns to conduct. One important carry-over from the 2002 version is Richard Stokes’s skilful English translation.

Setting Berg’s own libretto derived from Frank Wedekind’s plays Earth Spirt and Pandora’s Box, the score is written in the 12-note style, often regarded as forbidding, but which Berg handles with such flexibility and resource that the result packs a powerful emotional punch despite its complexity; but it still demands the highest standards of musicianship from a large cast, and it’s good to hear ENO’s orchestra on superb form throughout, with Wigglesworth’s ear for intricate detail ensuring a consistently fascinating listen.

For his part, Kentridge’s staging makes continuous use of his trademark animations and projections. Pages of a dictionary form a regular background, alongside the artist’s own drawings – mainly of men, many of them famous; but there are others that represent Lulu herself.

Itself non-stop in its visual imagery, and forming a hyperactive backdrop to the characters and their tragi-comic, invariably sexually motivated relationships, Kentridge’s designs stop short of drowning out the rest of the show – though at times it’s a pretty close call.

Sabine Theunissen’s sets and Greta Goiris’ costumes evoke the period of the work’s composition and posthumous premiere in 1937. As well as the standard cast, Kentridge introduces two silent extra figures – an omnipresent female mannequin played by Joanna Dudley and presumably representing Lulu’s spirit, and a valet-like male figure cleverly acted by Andrea Fabi.

Individual sung performances are generally strong, with Brenda Rae reaching all the high notes as Lulu while suggesting her character’s sexual magnetism, with its appeal to men and women alike. Nicky Spence makes a fluent, flawlessly articulate Alwa, and Sarah Connolly’s lush mezzo helps make lovelorn Countess Geschwitz’s plight genuinely involving.

Willard White is a lived-in Schigolch, while Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts offers fine studies of the Prince, Manservant and Marquis to match David Soar’s overweening Animal Tamer and Athlete, Clare Presland’s comprehensively excellent tripling up of the Theatrical Dresser, the Schoolboy and the Waiter, and also Michael Colvin’s Painter and Second Client. But James Morris sounds vocally worn as Dr Schon, and offers no sinister quality as Jack the Ripper, while unlike Rae he doesn’t mask a strong American accent.

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William Kentridge’s visually distinctive staging of Berg’s opera about the ultimate femme fatale