In Bed with Madonna: Peter Conrad on the ENO's Latest Sexual Romp. (Opera)

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Lulu -- the polymorphous and gleefully perverse heroine of Frank Wedekind's sex tragedies, Pabst's film Pandora's Box, and Berg's opera -- is the obscure object of everyone's desire. Both men and women yearn to possess her, but none of her suitors has any idea who she is. Nor do they care, as she is simply the projection of their own abject, idealising needs. They call her Nelly, Eva, Mignon and Adelaide as well as Lulu, and her aliases could also include Lola Lola, the Berlin tart played by Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, or Nabokov's Lolita: myth, as the orientalist Max Muller pointed out, is an exercise in polynymy, encouraging the single self to multiply. Lulu herself is bemused by her plurality. "Ich bin em Wunderkind," she remarks in the opera (a line which Richard Stokes, translating Berg's libretto for the English National Opera's new production, provocatively converts into "I had a virgin birth").

Perhaps it is not surprising that she could cite the Virgin Mary as a predecessor, because at ENO the archetypal heroine has been trashily updated into Madonna. I mean Mrs Madge Ritchie, not the chaste maiden abstractly inseminated by the Holy Ghost. The programme for Richard Jones's production includes snaps of Madonna in a smattering of metamorphoses, posing as Monroe, Dietrich and Princess Diana. But Madonna is what the semioticians call a floating signifier: meaningless in herself, ready to assume whatever look the market considers saleable that season. She lacks Lulu's fascination, her mystery, and also the spirituality made audible in her astral coloratura or in her great outcry about freedom after she escapes from prison. Lulu is an immaterial girl.

Poor Lisa Saffer, doing her valiant best to sing the extraterrestrial notes, has been made to look like a trashy Madonna wannabe. In one scene she wears a cowgirl outfit, and for the tragic conclusion -- reduced to whoring in London -- she is kitted out in teetering lace-up boots, a vinyl bikini and a scarlet wig. It's hardly possible to care when she is hacked to death by Jack the Ripper. Except that, in this production, she does not actually die, because Jones sees her as a conscientious and versatile sex worker who collects her wages at the end of the opera and anonymously dons a raincoat before returning to the suburbs.

Lulu, like Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, is about desire, not sex. All Jones can offer is the kind of public rutting that now seems compulsory at the Coliseum. …