American Lulu*** (Young Vic, 14 September 2013)

Posted: September 16, 2013 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays of 1896 and 1904 told of a young dancer who uses her sexual charms to entice wealthy men, climbs the German social ladder and later falls into poverty and despair. These plays were then adapted into an opera, left unfinished, by Alban Berg and it is this opera that the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth has now developed further. For the first two acts, she has adapted and re-orchestrated Berg’s work and written the text, in collaboration with Helga Utz; for the final act, she has composed original music and written the text.  Wedekind wrote a bold and, at that time, controversial indictment of the treatment of women in German society. Looking back on his plays and on Berg’s opera, Neuwirth sees them as defining women through the eyes of men and she now seeks to tell the story from the perspective of a woman, Lulu herself reflecting on her life. Abused and consigned to a demeaning role in a male dominated world, she turns the tables on her oppressors and ruthlessly uses all means at her disposal – sex, duplicity, prostitution, even murder – to break free. The basic narrative supports the feminist themes well, but Neuwirth then adds another layer to the sub-text by transplanting the story to New Orleans and New York during the era of the Civil Right struggles between the mid 1950s and the early 1970s. Lulu is now a black woman facing still further oppression and we hear extracts from Martin Luther King’s speeches and June Jordan’s poems to underline the historical context. Possibly this added dimension gives the opera one sub-text too many. It is already a complex and multi-layered work that is sometimes difficult to absorb and a further diversion does not help us to follow the plot or to assimilate the core feminist messages which go back to its roots. Magda Willi’s design evokes the atmosphere of a seedy night club which befits the drama well. All the action takes place on a small performance area in front of the orchestra, London Sinfonietta conducted by Gerry Cornelius, with a shimmering see-through curtain veiling different parts of the stage at various points. Angel Blue makes a striking Lulu; she possesses the looks, the acting skills and, above all, the glorious soprano voice. Berg’s dramatically effective music is not always easy on the ear, but, as adapted, it is infused with influences from American jazz; these influences become more prominent in Neuwirth’s original composition. The accomplished jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth plays Lulu’s lesbian lover Eleanor and hearing the two women sing together delivers some of the evening’s greatest pleasures. Opera being performed in a night club setting seems incongruous, as does the fusion of classical and jazz styles, but, intriguingly, these odd combinations work well. This is an ambitious project, possibly overly so and it does not quite hit all of its targets. However, working from rich source material and mixing in unusual elements, Olga Neuwirth and director John Fulljames have created a unique musical and theatrical experience that is, for the most part, innovative, powerful and compelling.

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