Grand Théâtre de Genève, Lulu by Alban Berg, Patricia Petitbon © GTG/Gregory Batardon

The Geneva opera was looking for trouble by asking the French director, Olivier Py, whose opera productions have sent Geneva audiences reeling with indignation in the past, to mount Lulu, the story of a demonic sex angel. Py responds with a production branded pornography by some, and genius by others. Swisster reacts to the hearsay by meeting Py and taking in the show.

The warning four days before opening night that Oliver Py’s production of Alban Berg’s Lulu contained “images that can shock” acts as a legal safeguard for the Geneva opera against any litigation on the grounds of pornography. Holders of tickets have the possibility of turning them in. Instead sales have shot up.

This is only the second time the Geneva opera has issued a warning. The first was in 2005 when a production of Tannhäuser by the same Py staged a real-life porn actor with a real-life erection.

The reason for the caution this time is not the simulated or real nudity of the performers (although Lulu appears in her waif-like nakedness less than four minutes into the show), nor the make-believe gyrating couplings of the dancers, it is a cloudy black and white film that serves as the visual backdrop during one of the scenes.

Gabriel de Candolle, a reputed gynaecologist and obstetrician who specialises in reproductive medicine, wrote a letter to the board of the Geneva opera before the premiere (with a copy to La Tribune de Genève newspaper) in which he expressed his misgivings that Py would once again “inflict us with scenes worthy of a sordid cabaret”.

Contacted by Swisster, de Candolle explains that “Olivier Py is certainly very talented, but he doesn’t know his place. His operas give me the impression that in his dreams he sees: a beautiful Olivier Py production served by the music of the composer.” It should be the other way around de Candolle believes.

As witnessed on site, his views are shared by a number of opera goers.

“I’m ashamed to be from Geneva. Are we so desperate that we have to accept pornography at the opera?” asks an infuriated spectator. She belongs to the half of the audience that boos the director when he came on stage at the end of the performance.

The other half claps enthusiastically rising for a standing ovation. “Py is a genius!” exclaims one young man.

Grand Théâtre de Genève, Lulu by Alban Berg, Robert Wörle, Patricia Petitbon, Gerhard Siegel, Julia Juon © GTG/Gregory Batardon

After three hours bathed in an orgy of cascading sounds and violent colours, no wonder feelings ride high. Lulu is the story of a destructive femme fatale whose amorality is only matched by her lack of true emotions. This is not a story about love, it’s a story about lust.

“Berg’s music is like shattering harmony against notes,” says Py of the Austrian composer who adopted his teacher Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal twelve-tone technique.

“It’s not the kind of music that you whistle in your bath,” he adds.

Py has wanted to direct Lulu for the past twenty years, ever since he heard a chilling chord from the opera, one that he considered “fascinating and unbearable, ugly but so desirable”.

Grand Théâtre de Genève, Lulu by Alban Berg, Patricia Petitbon © GTG/Gregory Batardon

Alban Berg based his opera on two plays written by the poet (and circus performer) Franz Wedekind, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1902). “Wedekind was a complete sex maniac. If he was still alive today, he’d be locked up,” says Py.

Wedekind attributed his own inspiration to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra “but in my view he got it completely wrong,” Py says, because “Nietzche celebrates life, while Wedekind celebrates Satan.”

“Art is often the result of sublime mistakes,” he claims.

Berg found Wedekind’s open-mindedness towards sex fascinating. “In Lulu we know that we are dealing with basic instincts,” says Py. “But Alban Berg, in my view, was a gentleman. That’s why his Lulu does not make us feel depressed or exhausted, but full of life.”

Grand Théâtre de Genève, Lulu by Alban Berg, Patricia Petitbon and Gerhard Siegel © GTG/Gregory Batardon
Alwa can’t tear himself away from Lulu’s ‘Pandora’s box’

And yet, there is not much to rejoice about in the life of a woman whose charm is a killer. Corpses of lovers litter her path. It is all very messy and to emphasize the chaos, a circus environment permeates Py’s production, a theme actually present in Berg’s introduction.

(It is also present in the section dedicated to German expressionism in the current 100 masterpieces from the Städel Museum at the Hermitage Foundation in Lausanne, which is no coincidence. A painting by Max Beckman could be straight out of this production.)

Berg died in 1939 of freak poisoning from an infected insect bite before completing Lulu. Based on his orchestral sketches, the Austrian composer and conductor, Friedrich Cerha, completed the opera which was premiered in its current version by Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez in 1979.

“The opera is 75 years old, but it is still unbelievably modern. That’s its strength: it doesn’t age,” believes Py.

Grand Théâtre de Genève, Lulu by Alban Berg, Direction Olivier Py © GTG/Gregory Batardon

The decor created by Pierre-André Weitz, Py’s working companion of twenty years, translates the timelessness of Lulu. The panels carrying the décor of the successive scenes move in a continuous stream, as does a Ferris wheel on stage, as if to underline the inescapability of Lulu’s sordid fate, when her life comes to an end at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

The visual battering of giant neon signs carrying enigmatic messages such as ‘I hate sex’, ‘My heart is heavy’, ‘As always’, ‘Black sun’ and ‘I am free’ further reinforce the distance between the show and the audience.

That’s why, in this spectator’s opinion, Py has attained his declared objective, to prevent the audience from feeling pathos or sympathy. At no time do we feel involved or concerned with Lulu. Even the abundant sex is deprived of eros.

Instead we are left to rise with the music of Alban Berg, revelling in sounds never heard before.

Not only is Patricia Lebon, the singer who incarnates Lulu, the epitome of seductive beauty, when she soars into a high note, her voice reminds us that there is a heaven. Every singer gives a prodigious performance, several of them playing many roles.

Under the guidance of the gifted young conductor Marc Albrecht, the Orchestra of the Suisse romande takes on a chiselled lustre.

Grand Théâtre de Genève, Lulu by Alban Berg, Patricia Petitbon © GTG/Gregory Batardon
Lulu’s days are almost over

So what about the porn scandal? The film that is raising such a storm is the close-up of various penetrations, but so blurred that it is like looking at rapid waves through a heavily waxed lens.

Berg wanted a film to be projected during the third act of the opera that would explain Lulu’s path to prostitution. Py is doing just that.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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