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Live from New York, Lulu Updated


Marlis Petersen in the title role and Daniel Brenna as Alwa in Berg’s Lulu. (Ken Howard photo)
Marlis Petersen in the title role and Daniel Brenna as Alwa in Berg’s Lulu.
(Ken Howard photo)

The complex staged history in America of Alban Berg’s Lulu begins with the two-act Lulu at Santa Fe in 1963, conducted by Robert Craft. In the 1970s the two-act Lulu finally made it to the Met, conducted by James Levine and with Carole Farley in the title role. The complete Lulu, with third act realized from Berg’s detailed Particell by Friedrich Cerha (Berg’s own orchestral score of the third act was about one-third complete before he died), received its American premiere at Santa Fe in 1979, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The Met three-act premiere followed, in 1980, a new production designed by John Dexter, conducted by Levine, and with Teresa Stratas as Lulu; it was also telecast in a brilliant performance with Julia Migenes-Johnson, who stepped in on less than two hours’ notice to replace an ailing Stratas. I saw all of these productions except the first. All strove to adhere to the meticulously detailed specifications of Berg’s libretto.

No less time-honored, if that’s the right word, was the tradition of using that libretto, and if possible his score, as a point of departure for the imagination (if that’s the right word) of a stage director who perceived his right to indulge dizzy flights of fancy.Such was the case with the world premiere, in Paris in 1979, of the complete three-act Lulu, whose performance had been forbidden by the testamentary terms of Berg’s widow, Helene. The stage director of this internationally heralded premiere, Patrice Chéreau, saw nothing incorrect about transposing the last scene of Act III from a dingy garret in London to a public toilet in the Paris Métro, where Lulu was to be seduced by a dwarf. Fortunately this production, conducted by Pierre Boulez and with Stratas in the title role possessed the compensation of excellent musical quality, as one can verify from the recording.

Thus I was eager to attend the new production at the Metropolitan Opera, with décors and projections by William Kentridge, the South African artist whose installation at the Metropolitan Museum I had found so compelling two years ago.It was plain that the new Lulu would be a modernized production departing substantially from Berg’s libretto, requiring an acceptance of new set of dramatic premises. Peter Sellars’s treatments of Mozart had repelled me for such liberties.

This profoundly impressive version of Lulu projects backdrops in mostly black-and-white in woodblock style or with ink slathered on in large or small brushstrokes, with cartoon-like figurative images redrawn from a variety of sources, all over a background of newsprint or perhaps upside-down pages from the Oxford English Dictionary. The Expressionist graphic styles, with an abundance of coarsely sketched nudes, resemble those of Pechstein or Schmidt-Rottluff and the other Die Brücke artists; one strains to see one image after the other before it vanishes, obscured by something pasted over it, like one of the Merzbilder of Kurt Schwitters. There were even a few visible seconds of a well-known photo of the young Berg himself, and someone told me Mahler was there too. All of these are beamed onto large movable panels that get pushed on or off the set by servants, stagehands in costume as it were, wearing plain white cylindrical masks, and these are extra characters who aren’t specified in the libretto.The overall visual effect, panels and projections combined, is jarring enough by itself; it becomes closely attached psychologically at particular moments, such as when the composer Alwa, rushing in just as the Painter cuts his own throat offstage, shouts “Revolution has broken out in Paris!” and “In Paris ist Revolution ausgebrochen!” appears projected as a newspaper headline. Or when there is physical violence on stage and the black-and-white projection is smeared over with blood red. The stage backdrop thus becomes a palimpsest for thoughts and actions at the same time. Most of us have always relied on the music to do that for us, but the added visual dimension makes that difficult task easier, when it isn’t puzzling. The convincing result left me rapt and willing to forego the ironclad details of Berg’s scenario for an entirely new dimension of operatic realization; the music, after all, seemed to be almost entirely intact.

Marlis Petersen, a native German, has made the role of Lulu a central part of her career, and she certainly has mastered it in nine previous productions; this Metropolitan appearance, she declares, will be her last. There may well be no more difficult role for an operatic soprano; Brünnhilde and Isolde require more endurance, but none require more agility and flexibility than Lulu, as well as perfection of intonation. All of that vocal virtuosity was perfectly evident in Petersen’s brilliantly-controlled performance on Tuesday. The lesbian Countess Geschwitz (accent on the first syllable) appears only in the last two acts, but she is the last character seen on stage at the very end; Susan Graham, mezzo and a Met regular, was entirely convincing in this complex characterization. The male principals were all figures of strength, especially Johan Reuter as Dr. Schön / Jack the Ripper; his grim dual role was nicely accentuated by his lime-green costume. Daniel Brenna was a rich-voiced Alwa, a composer-poet who always manages to convey a certain wimpishness; the audience actually laughed when he sang “One could write an interesting opera about her,” while the orchestra plays the opening chords of Wozzeck. The shadowy, asthmatic role of Schigolch was filled beautifully by Franz Grundheber, who was Wozzeck in the 1987 Vienna production; Schigolch is the eternal survivor, and after covering up Alwa’s corpse in the final scene, he goes downstairs to the pub for a drink. Martin Winkler was admirably arrogant as the noisy Acrobat / Animal Tamer. For some reason, the second role of the Painter was listed in the program booklet as “The African Prince” although Wedekind and Berg both identify his role as “The Negro.” This may be a gesture of political correctness, but there is another Prince in the opera, who Lulu says “will take me to Africa,” so there is risk of confusion. A particular word of congratulation is due to the orchestra—indeed, the players got a cheer from the audience—who were expertly directed by Lothar Koenigs; James Levine had made Lulu a signature work for his long Met tenure, but his younger colleague proved entirely equal to it. Last but not least, the program notes by the late George Perle will stand as a memorable verdict on the importance of Lulu not only in the operatic repertory but in the history of 20th-century music.

Lulu is a drama of intense psychological complexity. Though I’ve known most of the music for years and written about it many times, it always seems that I am just beginning to understand it. There are dozens of articles, not to say books, on Lulu’s character, dramatic value, and allegorical status, and all of these muddy perception.Some have said that Berg, whose own life is so often mirrored in his music directly, ought to be compared with the James Joyce of Ulysses.Seeing this new production of Lulu makes that idea more plausible. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kentridge (who explained some of his method in the Norton lectures at Harvard a few years back) had had the Nighttown scenes of Ulysses in mind. But one needs to see Lulu, and hear her, many times before one comprehends her significance. The staging needs to be a part of that, but the new production shows, I think, that we don’t need to rely on the dated qualities of Frank Wedekind’s stage specifications. By contrast, Wozzeck, which is even stronger dramatically than Lulu but less subtle and more overwhelming in sound, can be staged with almost nothing at all—even with just two chairs, two bottles, and a corpse). Wozzeck is nearly timeless, but as a femme fatale Lulu is still young, and we need to study her further.

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While in NYC, I also crashed a dress rehearsal of the Juilliard Opera at the recently built Sharp Theater. Sizable, with a steeply raked balcony, it held some a hundred people for Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias and Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis [ more on Ullmann here]. This production had an Emperor made up with a convincing Hitler mustache. As for the Poulenc, I had never heard it produced but was quite familiar with Apollinaire’s slightly longer and very Dadaesque play, because in 1962 I wrote some incidental pastiche music for a a black-box production at Harvard (piano, violin, clarinet and trombone; still available). The soprano lead, Thérèse/Tirésias, was sung by Liv Redpath, who last year was a sparkling Lakmé at Lowell House Opera. There were some fine amusements in the staging of both operas. I don’t know when helium balloons became commercially available, but when Thérèse released her mamelles they drifted gently up into the grid overhead (“Adieu, oiseaux de ma faiblesse”). The musical execution, chamber orchestra for the Ullmann, full orchestra for the Poulenc, was well-nigh flawless at every moment. Bravi, Juilliard!

The run at the Met continues through December 3.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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