An opera company takes time to change direction. David Pountney has been artistic director of Welsh National Opera since 2011, but with newly-designed programmes and branding, and a breathtakingly ambitious programme of work ahead, the new course is now well and truly set.
This hugely impressive new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu leaves no doubt about Pountney’s commitment to make WNO a leading player in contemporary European opera.
True, long-term Pountney-watchers will have spotted a few stylistic fingerprints, most obviously Johan Engel’s metal cage of a set. Here it was an appropriate setting for the menagerie described in the opera’s prologue; the main characters presented with the heads of animals while a white-faced band of George Grosz-like grotesques accompanied the Animal Tamer (an unsettlingly avuncular Richard Angas). The tone was set, both as timeless parable and satire on inter-war Europe.
And that gave the cue for Marie Arnet’s staggering central performance as Lulu. She’s introduced as a snake, and everything about Arnet’s interpretation, from her slow, deliberate movements to her series of glittering sheath-like flapper dresses, conveyed a sense of cold-blooded control. Yet she sang this most insanely demanding of roles with ravishing beauty and musicality, matching the orchestra’s swoons and shrieks with the sweetness and purity you’d expect in a Strauss song.
Paul Carey Jones rose to her challenge as Dr Schön, while Natascha Petrinsky was a poised and seductive Countess Geschwitz. Wonderful, too, to see WNO regular Peter Hoare as Alwa; surely as vulnerable and touching a performance as it’s possible to give in Lulu’s sensual hell. The opera itself (given in Eberhard Kloke’s completion) is flawed, and if the tone and pace lurched uncomfortably in the brutal final scenes, that’s hardly Pountney’s or Koenigs’ fault. This was an entire ensemble tackling a monumental artistic challenge with absolute conviction – and leaving the audience gasping for breath.