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Six Flashing Lights for Lulu

The Royal Danish Opera House
10/15/2010 -  & October 17, November 5, 11, 21, 24, December 8, 10, 2010
Alban Berg: Lulu
Sine Bundgaard (Lulu), Randi Stene (Countess Geschwitz), Elisabeth Jansson (a dresser, a high school boy, a servant), Peter Lodahl (a painter, a negro), Johan Reuter (Dr. Schön, Jack the Ripper), Johnny van Hal (Alwa), Magne Fremmerlid (an animal trainer, a theater director, an athlete), Sten Byriel (Schigolch), Michael Kristensen (a prince, Marquis Casti Piani, a valet), Anders Jakobsson (a medical councillor, Puntschu, Professor Hunidei), Lina Johnson (a 15-year-old girl), Elisabeth Halling (the girl’s mother), Josefine Andersson (a craftsman), Waltteri Torikka (a journalist), Jakob Vad (a waiter)
The Royal Danish Opera Orchestra, Michael Boder (conductor)
Stefan Herheim (director), Heike Scheele (set designer), Gesine Völlm (costume designer), Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturg), Stefan Herheim and Anders Poll (lighting designers)

S. Bundgaard, J. Reuter, J. van Hal
(© Miklos Szabo/courtesy of Royal Danish Opera)

A new Lulu has seen the light of day, and what a Lulu! It was the premiere of the opera at The Royal Danish Opera and the world premiere of a new third act orchestrated by composer Eberhard Kloke in 2008, and now interpreted and realized by Stefan Herheim (director) and Michael Boder (conductor).

We experienced a seldom masterpiece in creative teamwork, an action-packed psychological drama that takes place in an expressionistic world. The Kloke-Boder-Herheim production delivers a consistent vision, with a vocal and orchestral sound that mirrors and emphasizes the human drama taking place on stage. For Berg experts, there is a seldom opportunity to evaluate the merits of the new orchestration, since the Herheim production - with the same direction, sets, and costumes, but with the Cerha Act 3 and another conductor - will be produced at the Norwegian Opera in early 2011.

Stefan Herheim, a young Norwegian opera director, has created a unified, revitalized Lulu, a production where sets, costumes, lighting, music and dramaturgy support one another, and where the third act continues Lulu’s story in Berg’s musical style and spirit. Herheim, Michael Boder (conductor), Heike Scheele (set designer), Gesine Völlm (costume designer), Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturg), and Stefan Herheim/Anders Poll (lighting designers) must be all be congratulated.

To begin with, we sat outside a white and red circus tent in heavy plastic with recognizable male protagonists pressed up against the wall staring at us. The tent slid back to reveal a small theatre on the turntable stage with mute, expressionistic, Ensor-like clowns playing instruments on the roof. These clowns later revealed themselves to be the ghosts of Lulu’s so-called victims, and they transformed every deceased character to yet another ghost as the opera progressed. “Ej Blot Til Lyst” [Not just for pleasure] was the slogan on the stage (the same slogan that still tops the 19th century theatre of the Copenhagen Royal Opera).

The first ostensible lesson came promptly from Magne Fremmerlid (animal trainer), who – surrounded by clown grotesques making fanfare – introduced us to the characters of the opera, one by one, beasts and reptiles, and finally the worst of them all, Eve, who stepped out of the stage backdrop. As the archetypal woman, she was presented as the snake and dragged about and taunted as the cause of the downfall of all men. Perhaps at this point, every woman in the audience wondered whether she had time to listen to the complaints of a misogynist, but, already captivated by the music and the expressionistic prologue, we stayed to see the show.

The Royal Danish Orchestra, in full number, played supremely under the leadership of Michael Boder, who had conducted Wozzeck, Berg’s first opera, here in 2008. Boder modulated the complex score according to the libretto’s huge variety of singing and speaking demands, as he kept a watchful eye on the stage. The music animated the players and glued the audience to the drama unfolding before them. Musical climaxes accompanied sexual and psychological climaxes, and these were magnified visually by scenographic details like quivering lights, for example, in the conflicted sextet after Lulu faints in the theatre. In the third act, musicians in costume joined the party on stage to amplify Lulu’s emotions.

Sine Bundgaard (Lulu) gave us a casual amoral femme fatale whose emotional involvement is limited to her self alone. Her Lulu is an opportunist who uses situations as they present themselves. She can appear warm and innocent, but is cold inside and can poison without regret; she manipulates her benefactor/husband and kills him when the opportunity presents itself. Bundgaard creates the true Lulu, the abused child all grown up, whose sexuality has early on been trained to be pervasive. Her lyrical and dramatic singing and wise acting, not overplayed, deserved and received the audience’s applause in good measure.

Sten Byriel (Schigolch, a beggar) plays one of Lulu’s first seducers, sometimes called her father, at any rate the formative source of her character. He is, as Dr. Schön realizes in his dying moment, "Der Teufel", the devil. The character, so well portrayed by Byriel, visits Lulu repeatedly and sometimes is hoisted up and down like a god.

Johan Reuter (Dr. Schön) sings and acts the role of the newspaperman/businessman as if he was made for the part, and later becomes an extremely frightening Jack the Ripper, thanks to the painted mask that leaves no doubts about the intentions of this character. The macabre seventh scene is not for children or sensitive souls: the white clowns who have been watching Lulu throughout put on trench coats and become johns. Conspiring against her, their umbrellas go round and round to the music as Lulu’s first customer gets satisfaction. When she picks out the Ripper, the johns encircle around the two, close their umbrellas, and take off their coats. They are once more the spectres of Lulu’s exploiters, and they join the Ripper in the kill on stage: expressionistic drama, disturbing, and x-rated.

Johnny von Hal (Alwa) sings the role of the Dr. Schön’s son, a writer who uses Lulu as a muse while secretly coveting her, the opera composer within the opera. Not only does his heroic tenor voice fit the part, but he is very much present as an actor, and he carries the role extremely well.

Another success is tenor Peter Lodahl (painter Walter Schwarz/a negro), whose voice is convincing as the young man who believes in God and holy love between one man and one woman. Berg’s character asks Lulu the important questions about who she is, but under the spell of Lulu’s sexuality, he never gets the answers, and he thereby seals his own fate (disappointment and suicide). Magne Fremmerlid, Elisabeth Jansson, and Michael Kristensen as secondary principals had lots of work with three roles each, and they did their jobs well.

Randi Stene (Countess Geschwitz) showed off once more her strengths as a singer and actress. She plays Lulu’s lesbian lover, who loves her and sacrifices for her, in contrast to Lulu’s men. Just before she meets her fate, Kloke - or could it be Berg? - has her declare that she will leave these people, return to university and work for women’s rights. The statement is surprising and somehow untimely, since the minutes are already ticking away for Lulu and Geschwitz. And the drama we have been witness to does not need an explicitly stated moral lesson. Stene – after singing about Lulu and her hopes for finding her in eternity (Berg did not have the chance to edit this) – closes the show as an amorphous bundle beneath the collapsed ministage. Everyone but Schigolch has died or disappeared.

Who then is Berg’s Lulu and why is she important? A girl (or many girls), called by many names – Eva, Lulu, Nelly, Mignon – born into unfortunate circumstances, and at an early age abused by a man or many men, who continue to abuse her as they claim to help her. The girl takes what she can to survive, tries to hold on to every possibility for security, and is trapped in a state of constant demise and emotional frigidity. In the Copenhagen (Herheim/Kloke/Boder) Lulu, Berg turns out not to be a misogynist, but a social accuser. The white clowns are not ghosts of victims or exploiters, but fragments of Lulu’s memory. It is an opera that spawns many questions and offers many layers of detail, both musical and thematic, and it deserves to be seen in many venues.

Kathleen Gail Jensen



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