“Roll up, roll up and prepare to be appalled,” commands the Animal Tamer in the opening moments of Alban Berg’s Lulu. In this vile menagerie, we are invited to watch extreme personalities behaving badly, an indictment on base human instinct with barely a shred of redemption. It still disturbs but – just look around – no longer shocks as was once the case. Berg left the opera unfinished at the time of his death in 1935. The third act was later completed by Friedrich Cerha. Heralded as a masterpiece of the 20th century, Lulu presents an insoluble dilemma. It certainly splits opinion. The music is lush, complex and searing. The story, taken from two Wedekind plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, remains obdurate and pitiless.
Despite these reservations, English National Opera has excelled with its unmissable new production. Designed and directed by the South African artist William Kentridge, it has already been seen in New York and Amsterdam, but at ENO we have the benefit of hearing this dense text in English (translation by Richard Stokes). Kentridge’s familiar use of collage, newspapers and pages of books scrawled with thick black ink suggesting blood, fragmented, ricocheting in a cascade of projected images, suits the chaos of the action. With echoes, in the use of cylindrical masks and giant hands, of the stage designs of Picasso and Cocteau, the design serves the drama vividly, and adds sensuality and tenderness.
As ever, the music provides the heart. The ENO orchestra was on exhilarating form, journeying through Berg’s tone rows, palindromic twists and cryptograms with finesse, under the confident guidance of the conductor, Mark Wigglesworth. With Brenda Rae in the title role, musically and physically skilful but slightly lacking in vocal heft, and a versatile cast featuring Nicky Spence, poignant and credible as Alwa, Sarah Connolly harrowing as the devastated Countess Geschwitz, Willard White dignified as the mysterious Schigolch and James Morris, once a great Wotan, repulsively impressive as Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper. All round, a classy triumph for English National Opera.
Igor Levit, the Russian-German pianist born in 1987, has already proved a wizard at Beethoven. His recordings of the late sonatas, and of the Diabelli Variations, hoovered up awards and superlatives. This autumn, Levit began his first complete series of Beethoven sonatas, in London and Brussels, spread out between now and March. Since Beethoven took some four decades of his 56-year life to write this body of 32 works, an enforced breathing space between concerts comes as a reward: time for reflection and anticipation instead merely of open-mouthed amazement after the more usual rapid marathon.
On the evidence of last Monday’s concert, broadcast live on Radio 3, I regret having missed the first two in the series. Levit catapulted the explosive opening of Op 10, No 1 in C minor into life, the entire work unfolding with turbulence alternating with hushed serenity. These outer limits in which Levit so delights give his playing a sense of risk, that variety of light and shade you might find in Goya’s equally monolithic groups of prints, Los Caprichos, created in the same period (artist and composer died a year apart). This is Levit’s style, closer to the analytical clarity of, say, Alfred Brendel than to the spacious freedoms of Daniel Barenboim: all three pianists, however different, understand Beethoven’s wit, the bright gleam that unites this entire body of music.
It’s inaccurate to say that Levit’s love of dynamic extremes creates a lack of any middle ground. He’s far too exploratory and inquisitive a performer for that. He is, too – how can anyone judge, but this is how it comes across – a convincing translator of Beethoven’s scores, never rigid or predictable but open-eared, alert, experimental. The two “easy” – go on, try – Op 49 sonatas had sharp contour and grace, as did the more ambitious Op 54 in F, each contrasting episode made transparent. Levit tends to play with his head close to the keyboard, almost encircling himself with shoulders raised and arms widespread. Intensity and concentration are absolute. He ended with a glinting, elemental account of Op 57 in F minor “Appassionata”, described by that other revered Beethoven player, András Schiff, as being like a Greek tragedy that ends in catastrophe, without catharsis and barely a glimpse of sun.
Praise to the conductor and composer Odaline de la Martinez, whose London festival of American music, with the ensemble Lontano, opened with a tribute to the open form music of Earle Brown (1926-2002). They also performed Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, with viola player Stephen Upshaw and the New London Chamber Choir. Feldman loved the viola. It’s always a surprise when this sparing minimalist composer suddenly sends forth a melody that sounds like Brahms.
The NLCC had worked hard to give a well-drilled performance. It was an intimate event at the Warehouse, Waterloo, with – possibly – more musicians than audience. This was a pity, given the present opportunity of seeing several Rothko paintings in the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show. They are hung in similar formation to those in the octagonal chapel in Texas which inspired Feldman’s music. “A sense of the tragic is always with me when I paint,” observed Rothko, a Russian Jew who arrived on Ellis Island in 1913 to pursue the American dream.