WASHINGTON, Nov. 24, 2015 – So much actual and virtual ink has already been expended in praising the Metropolitan Opera’s astonishing new production of Alban Berg’s landmark opera “Lulu,” that there’s no point laying the kudos on thick once again. Even so, there’s certainly room for another take on this production, perhaps the finest realization yet of a problematic and seemingly cursed modernist opera that took over 40 years to achieve its first complete performance.
The strange history of “Lulu”
Staging and performance issues with “Lulu” have a long and complex history, inextricably tangled up in personal and political problems revolving around the composer’s hostility toward Germany’s Nazi regime as well as early and tragic death from sepsis in 1935 when he was only 50.
Having already completed two acts of “Lulu” by 1935 and, as it eventually turned out, extensive sketches and some orchestration for the opera’s final act, Berg’s sudden death scuttled still nascent plans for the opera’s premiere, which in any event would likely have been thwarted by the Hitler government.
Worse, his grief-stricken widow absolutely forbade anyone to fill out Berg’s partially completed Act I or performing any more than “Lulu’s” first two acts. For that reason, “Lulu” was performed for years as part of the operatic fringe after the work finally had a partial premiere in 1937.
The entirety of Act III awaited completion until Helene Berg passed away in the 1970s. Having already worked on the existing Act III material behind the scenes, composer, Austrian conductor and musicologist Friedrich Cerha completed the finale in a manner that matched as closely as possible the composer’s partial orchestration, notes, sketches and intentions.
And so it was that this intriguing, long-standing unfinished modernist classic received its first complete performance in 1979. The Met mounted a production of this complete version a year later in 1980.
Now fully realized as the modernist masterpiece many critics and musicians felt certain that it was, “Lulu” is finding a posthumous place in the operatic repertoire that threatens to eclipse Berg’s already well-regarded earlier opera, “Wozzeck.”
The new Met production
The current Metropolitan Opera performances of “Lulu,” including last Saturday’s live HD movie theater simulcast, provide ample reasons why. To be honest, we have long detested the academic and concert hall dominance of 12-tone music throughout most of the 20th century but still remain open to revising our general opinion of such music when the occasion arises.
Given that we had never had the opportunity to hear the completed score of “Lulu” before—lacking at times the opportunity and at other times the desire—we thought that catching this much-previewed new Met production might be just the ticket. The Met’s longtime music director and conductor James Levine—an expert in conducting Berg’s work—was to be in the pit, and soprano Marlis Petersen—who has owned the title role of Lulu for many years—would be performing it for what she vows is the final time during these performances.
Even more promising: William Kentridge, who created the wildly active and jagged physical and projected sets for a Met production of Shostakovich’s absurdist opera “The Nose” a couple seasons ago, was drafted as the producer-director to create a daring new staging for these performances. His vision was flawlessly executed by set designer Sabine Theunissen and projection designer Catherine Meyburgh.
Things almost turned out as planned, though not quite. Mr. Kentridge created an astonishing new production that was the same as the work he did for “The Nose,” only completely different, and as Lulu Ms. Petersen was simply astonishing (more a bit later).
But alas, Mr. Levine withdrew from conducting these performances. Having been in delicate health for a number of years, his marvelous efforts leading the Met’s forces recently in a majestic production of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” had apparently pushed him to the limit, and it’s clear he still needs to be careful about what he’s taking on.
Yet even here, providence smiled on the production. The Met was able to get Berg expert Lothar Koenigs in to sub for Mr. Levine—although we’re sure Mr. Koenigs must have jumped at the chance to conduct this production. Even though he arrived on short notice, we suspect he was delighted at this unexpected opportunity to lead this innovative new production. Unquestionably he knew the score, literally and figuratively, and led the recent Saturday Met simulcast with tremendous skill and insight.
Berg set his opera in late 19th century Vienna, adapting the action and the setting from a pair of turn-of-the-20th-century plays by dramatist Frank Wedekind. Each in its own way, both plays anticipated the gradual decay of European life and society so brilliantly depicted in Richard Strauss’ bizarre, exotic operatic adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” (1905) and his later, more explicitly satirical, comic opera “Der Rosenkavalier” (1911).
In the desperate decadence portrayed in Wedekind’s plays, Berg found the material he had been looking for, at least in part, to depict the coming disaster he felt would be the final act of Hitler’s increasingly murderous regime. So personally did he take this subject matter, Berg himself actually created his own libretto from Wedekind’s original work.
A number of key contemporary threads combined to influence this deeply intelligent and highly literary opera. One, of course, was Berg’s continuing emphasis on the hopeless decay of the European aristocracy as well as its heirs, the wealthy but hopelessly bourgeois captains of business, banking and industry. Another was the subjective but existential question involving just who or what an actual person is.
Adding the Nazis into the equation, Berg created an opera meant to explore these issues in what he imagined to be an avant-garde, expressionist setting, one that distorted ideas, personalities, moods and actions, choosing to focus on larger-than-life emotions rather than actual reality.
Berg intended for the original production—which he never saw—to reflect this psychological torment. He went even further by expressing a preference for at least one key transition in the opera—Lulu’s trial and imprisonment—to be filmed and projected onstage during a musical interlude composed precisely for that purpose.
In designing this production, Mr. Kentridge took Berg’s original intentions as his cue. Building on the kaleidoscopic black and white projected imagery that gave his production of “The Nose” its aura of insanity, Mr. Kentridge went back to the same well for “Lulu,” riffing on what he did for “The Nose” but refining it considerably in service to many of Berg’s ideas for the opera’s production.
As with “The Nose,” Mr. Kentridge’s stage design, as executed by Ms. Theunissen and Ms. Meyburgh, calls for minimal props, emphasizing instead the constantly and sometimes frantically shifting, predominantly black and white projected images that dominate the stage. These are generally presented as newspaper headlines, primarily in English and German, sometimes commenting on the action, at other times providing the underlying history of the period, which he has quietly updated to have the look and feel of major European cities in the 1920s and 1930s.
Paper and newspaper are the dominant physical symbols for this production, right down to the fact that stage props and even one of Lulu’s outfits turn out to be constructed of paper, a medium that carries news, lies, propaganda while remaining physically flimsy, ephemeral and easy to destroy.
You’d expect this constantly flickering and shifting imagery to quickly become a distraction in this production, but it doesn’t, reflecting instead the madness and turmoil inside the heads of the opera’s chief characters, led by the chameleon-like Lulu herself.
Lulu and her decadent, predatory entourage
Lulu is a predator and a victim rolled into one. Sometimes she behaves like an imperious 21st century gender feminist. At others, she allows the men in her serial relationships a free hand in defining who and what she is. She stubbornly tries to forge a life and identity for herself, but in the end, assumes whatever identity she’s been assigned.
She is, in fact, a creature of our own times who, like us, is continuously redefined by those who seek dominance without any right to do so. Just as deviancy has been defined down, Lulu is likewise defined down by each successive relationship, the last of which erases her altogether. Like Robin in Djuna Barnes’ bizarre novel “Nightwood,” Lulu hangs around with the kind of strange, abnormal humans, sideshow freaks the likes of which Barnes described as “gaudy, cheap cuts from the beast life, immensely capable of that great disquiet called entertainment.”
We first meet Lulu (Marlis Peterson) in a painter’s studio where he is attempting to paint her portrait for her lover (and his patron), Dr. Schön (Johan Reuter), a wealthy newspaper publisher. Her real husband, Dr. Göll, enters and, catching Lulu and the Painter (Paul Groves) in a compromising position, promptly dies of a heart attack.
Already the symbolism of the production is providing us with clues as to where this psychological drama is heading. While posing for her portrait, Lulu wears a paper head—the artist’s “concept” of Lulu—as well as pasted-on pieces of paper crudely representing her private parts. She is dehumanized when we first meet her and tends to remain elusive and dehumanized throughout.
That said, Lulu is also a great adaptor, insisting on adopting new names and new identities for each relationship, of which “Lulu” is only one.
She next marries the Painter, who commits suicide, then promptly marries her insistent former lover, Dr. Shön, whom she shoots in the back.
Arrested, tried and convicted of Shön’s murder, Lulu is jailed but is eventually released due to severe illness. She promptly runs away with Shön’s lovestruck son Alwa (Daniel Brenna) and an entourage including the old lecher Schigolch (Franz Grundheber), the nasty Acrobat (Martin Winkler) and her loyal patron (and sometime lesbian lover), Countess Geschwitz (Susan Graham). Blackmailed by an African Prince (Paul Groves once again), Lulu and her entourage head off from Paris to London where the men persuade her to earn money for them all as a prostitute.
As luck would have it, Lulu has truly hit bottom in London. After turning a trick or two, her next—and final—customer turns out to be Jack the Ripper (Johan Reuter again). The encounter brings both her life and that of the Countess to an abrupt close as the curtain falls.
Berg’s score: Atonal but not
Never a truly slavish devotee to0 the 12-tone row, Berg combines elements of that compositional school with the kind of extended tonality visited by Gustav Mahler in his Ninth and unfinished Tenth Symphonies, as well as the similar approaches of at least two of his tonalist/extended tonality contemporaries, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Erich Korngold. The result is a score that, while spiky and difficult remains accessible and not dissimilar to the kind of music we customarily hear today in scores for movie thrillers and horror films.
The entire production—over four hours including a pair of intermissions—moves with surprising economy and speed, spurred on not only by those hallucinatory, expressionistic sets, but also by the performance of the Met’s standout cast, led by Marlis Petersen’s brilliant and definitive impersonation of Berg’s protean anti-heroine, Lulu.
A brilliant cast, and a magnificent finale for Marlis Peterson
Lulu is a supremely difficult role, and it’s no wonder that Ms. Petersen wants to retire it after this go-around. The role is supremely exhausting and could eventually shorten any soprano’s career, so leaving it behind is a good choice.
Nonetheless, Ms. Petersen is at the peak of her power in this role, which calls for a vast range of vocal sounds, slides and other ornamentation, including some well-disguised but genuinely coloratura moments. Ms. Petersen executes all of them flawlessly, spending more time on stage than any other character. Anyone who experiences or attends this production is privileged indeed.
Other roles in this production are smaller, serving as support for the towering character and role of Lulu. But that doesn’t take away from the fine efforts of this superb cast. Lulu’s entourage is headlined by Met veteran Susan Graham, who is superbly vulnerable in her first-ever performance as the countess; Daniel Branna, who is oddly yet touchingly fragile as Alwa; Franz Grundheber as the oily “father” and procurer Schigolch; Paul Groves as the hapless Painter; and Johan Reuter, whose tempestuous Schön is later mirrored in his double-casting as Jack the Ripper, the type of pairing Berg was said to prefer.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
A pre-recorded reprise of this simulcast will take place Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. at participating “Met in HD” movie theaters worldwide.
Live performances of “Lulu” will continue at the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Lincoln Center home through Dec. 3, 2015.