Lulu: First farce, then tragedy

Berg, Lulu (three act version).  Metropolitan Opera, 5/12/10.  Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Marlis Petersen (Lulu), James Morris (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper), Anne Sofie von Otter (Gräfin Geschwitz), Gary Lehman (Alwa), Michael Schade (Painter/African Prince), Gwynne Howell (Schigolch), Bradley Garvin (Athlete/Animal Trainer)Production by John Dexter.

I think it is reasonable to say that most audience members, directors, and conductors would identify Lulu as an unremittingly bleak and surreal blast of sex and violence.  What we got at the Met last night was considerably more complex than that, and fascinatingly so.

Marlis Petersen is completely at ease in Berg’s musical world.  She not only sings all of Lulu’s ridiculously demanding music without apparent effort but moves with an amazing sensitivity to the musical gesture, and not just the gestures she is singing.  I would like to think that this is the kind of performance Berg was looking for when he wrote so many picky stage directions in his score.  Petersen’s Lulu feels almost like a choreographic realization of the music. 

Like her cousin Salome, Lulu is usually interpreted today as a passive creation of male desire rather than as an aggressor.  Taking Lulu as a helpless victim of men, as Petersen does, makes us feel a little better about the gender politics of this piece, though I doubt Berg, much less his buddies Kraus and Weininger, would recognize this take on feminine nature.  This approach makes her increased awareness in the second half something of a self-actualization, which again feels better to us now.  (I think Petersen’s approach is entirely the right one for today, and I would probably be very uncomfortable with anything else, but I think we need to acknowledge that this piece has a shitload of gender trouble.)

Fabio Luisi’s conducting continues to be wonderful, finding brilliantly clear textures without ever losing forward motion.  Tempos were on the fast side.  This, combined with more lightness than usual, brought out a surprising amount of black comedy in the score.  There are parts of Lulu that have a great deal of dark humor, but they are usually awkward. I’m never sure if I should laugh when Lulu somewhat offhandedly mentions to Alwa that she was the one who poisoned his mother.  But they felt right here, and successfully tied together surreal and farcical elements of the opera together–the ritualistically echoing lines, the allusions to number opera–with the more expected lustful and violent ones.

This happened dramatically as well.  John Dexter’s production is dully realistic and somewhat worn around the edges–the Met photographer avoided taking many photos that show much of the sets, perhaps understandably.  The sets occupy only a small triangle of space center stage.  It all feels hopelessly tame and frumpy for the goings-on, and sucked some blood from the piece, so to speak, that a more brilliant backdrop might have focused more. A certain amount of depraved zing was lost, but it had an interesting effect.  The stodgy setting, and the ease and fluidity of Petersen’s Lulu contrasted with the stiff and much more static performances of her men (intentional or accident of casting?  I don’t know), all of which pushed us towards a Schnitzler-like satire of bourgeois life.  Sometimes in the schtickier moments it even suggested a middlebrow farce or comedy of manners that happened to involve a lot of violence (“the servant who is intentionally clattering those dishes is having an affair with my wife too? damnation!”).  I think the production intended to be entirely straight, but something about such a resolutely concrete and staid staging of such a louche, surreal piece of work is radical in itself.  To my convoluted mind, at least.

But at the turning point of the opera–that is to say, the Film Music linking the two scenes of Act II–things got a lot darker.  (No film this time, which I missed but am not going to throw a fit over.)  In the plot, this is where Lulu is in prison and then in the hospital, which she identifies as “when she came to know herself,” the semi-self-actualization I mentioned above.  Dexter’s set for Act 3 Scene 1 is considerably less realistic than the ones before it (limited color palette, bigger contrasts).  Everything begins to replay itself in Berg’s recapitulatory and palindromic fashion, only this time despite the ever-increasing ridiculousness of the plot it is in deadly earnest (a few jokes at the expense of some bankers aside).  I wish the final London scene had been a bit grittier and grimier–Jack the Ripper, as you can see above, looks halfway respectable–but it was certainly creepy enough.  Lulu seems aware that she can do little to control her fate.

As for the rest of the singing, it was good!  James Morris redeemed some of his wobbles earlier in the season with an excellently sung though occasionally dramatically blank Dr. Schön–I can understand that Dr. Schön is a bit on the repressed side, though.  Gary Lehman sang Alwa with heroic strength, particularly his impassioned and tireless rendition of the Act 2 Scene 2 duet, a highlight of the score.  Bradley Gauvin was a maniacally animated Athlete and Animal Trainer, the latter more sung than Sprechstimme’d.  The other supporting parts, particularly Gwynne Howell’s gentle Schigolch and Graham Clark’s scary character tenors, were all excellent.

The Countess Geschwitz is the most human character in the opera, to my mind, and Anne Sofie von Otter was touching.  This was my first time hearing her live despite having a few of her CDs and considering myself a big fan.  Her voice is in excellent condition, and she made this sometimes pathetic character gently sympathetic, and her end truly tragic.

I’m glad that I could end my Met season with such an amazing performance.  Three cheers for all involved, but particularly Maestro Luisi.  (Then, for Berg, those three cheers again in retrograde!)

Lest you think this is the nadir of sex and violence in opera, I will be reporting on the New York Philharmonic’s production of Le grand macabre in exactly two weeks.  Perhaps some end-of-season fun before then.

Edited to add p.s. to people led here from Google Finance: I’m guessing that you’ve decided by now that I have nothing to say about the stock LULU.  You are wrong, I do have an opinion.  I think those yoga pants are really overpriced.

Video: There was a video here, but it apparently poses copyright issues.  Removed at the request of the Chicago Lyric Opera, sigh.  Don’t want to get anyone in trouble.

You may also like