Co-productions in opera are now an economic necessity. Sharing the cost of new productions enables opera companies to maintain quality in spite of rising costs of labour and materials. The good thing about a co-production that turns out to be a great show is that audiences in several cities get to experience it. However, if it is received negatively at the first company, the co-producers are faced with a compromised product. If they can afford it, they can cut their losses and abandon it. Alternatively, they can cross their fingers and hope that their patrons will embrace it. After all, what goes down a treat in one city can rub audiences the wrong way in another, and vice versa. Or they can regard it as a work-in-progress which can be improved on its international progress.
Alban Berg’s Lulu as designed by William Kentridge is a co-production between Dutch National Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera. It premiered in Amsterdam in June of this year, at the Holland Festival. Its next stop is New York, where it opens in November with an overlapping cast, but a different soprano in the main role. Several Dutch critics were bowled over by Kentridge’s stage-spanning animated projections. De Volkskrant called it a “visual masterpiece”. The press also admired the production’s conceptual cohesion, which complements Berg’s dramatic and musical symmetry. Kentridge gave us a Lulu who is a blank canvas on which her admirers sketch their desires; an elusive, colourless creature as wispy as a curl of paint. The singers’ direction, in the hands of a co-director, was less well-received. The characters often interacted with what came across as cool detachment. This left an emotional vacuum in front of the ever-changing, fascinating projections. A couple of the singers, such as William Burden (The Painter/Negro) and Franz Grundheber (Schigolch) managed to create moments of focused energy, but there was so much they could do. The character of Dr. Schön, excellently sung by Johan Reuter, suffered the most from the loose-threaded Personenregie. There was hardly a hint of the messiness of the relationship between Lulu and her tormented saviour/protector/lover. In contrast, the complexity of their inextricable bond was drawn in grisly detail by Dmitri Tcherniakov in a concurrent Lulu at the Bavarian State Opera, which was streamed online. Had its characters had two-thirds of the fierceness of their counterparts in Munich, the Amsterdam Lulu would have been upgraded to a higher league.
Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, was reportedly in Amsterdam to see Lulu. Presumably, he read the reviews and, more importantly, was able to gauge the temperature of the audience reception: admiring of Kentridge’s artistry and the craftsmanship of his team, appreciative of the performers and musicians, but not exactly carried away. It should not be impossible to rethink the way the characters move and interact. As Lulu will also be relayed world-wide as part of the Met’s Live in HD series, the rethink is probably a necessity. This is a very good production that has the potential to become a great one. It has a great physique: no need for expensive plastic surgery. It just needs to visit an analyst to gain some insight into its relationships. Let’s hope it can do so as it crosses the Atlantic and then crosses it back again.