In this dark and dazzling performance, Lulu wears many guises. She is the star attraction of a circus, drawing a succession of honest citizens into her deadly orbit. But she succeeds only as much as she is a projection for what they want, even if they can’t publicly admit it.
Lulu is an opera that demands superhuman efforts, and the Dresden Semperoper has, unusually, found that in cast, orchestra, and production with an embarrassment of riches, from Gisela Stille’s Lulu to Cornelius Meister’s conducting to and Stefan Herheim’s fascinatingly strange production.
Berg, Lulu. Semperoper Dresden, 6/19/2012. New production directed by Stefan Herheim, set by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Völlm, lights by Stefan Herheim and Fabio Antoci. Conducted by Cornelius Meister with Gisela Stille (Lulu), Christa Mayer (Gräfin Geschwitz), Nils Harald Sodal (Der Maler/Ein Neger), Markus Marquandt (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper), Jürgen Müeller (Alwa), Ketil Hugaas (Schigolch), Almas Svilpa (Ein Tierbaendiger/Ein Athlet)
I’m not going to summarize this staging at length because
James Jorden already has in impressive detail. (He saw it in Copenhagen but
there seem to be only a few changes.) A lot has been written on this production already but everyone seems to see something different in it–dense cryptic spectacles are like that–so I’m happy to add my bit about what it, uh, “means.”
Lulu is a circus
from the very start: the opera opens with the Animal Tamer inviting us into his
show. Generally that is the end of that and we proceed into the Painter’s
workshop in proper quasi-realistic operatic manner. But Herheim organizes the
opera as an opposition or even dialectic between the circus (grotesques, a
surreal atmosphere, ghosts, the id) and the bourgeois world of operatic
performance (propriety, a miniature version of the opera house’s stage, Lulu’s
lovers before they become ensnared, the actual composition of Lulu, we the audience, the superego).
Lulu herself is the passage between these two realms, and as acted by Gisela
Stille, somewhat inside and outside the action at once, always aware but rarely
seemingly nude but wearing, it becomes obvious, a garishly painted bodysuit.
(Are we supposed to notice this or pretend we don’t? Yes, it’s OK that we
noticed, it is later clarified.) She is haunted by a band of clowns who observe from an upper level and help
along the action by providing props and ultimately
encouraging the demise of each of Lulu’s husbands. After each one dies, the
clowns forcibly recruit him into their ranks, dragging him over to a makeup
table and painting his face white, and Lulu reappears wearing a wedding dress,
ready for her next. The clowns, it seems, are all former lovers of Lulu, condemned in
their postmortem state to serve her backup team (she can see them but
no one else can). Notably, the three we meet when they are already in her grasp
and are not destined for marriage—Schigolch, the Acrobat, and the
Schoolboy–already appear circus-like. Geschwitz stays bourgeois, never able to
join this world. It’s not a production of realistic or psychologically
developed characters but rather types who fit together to tell the story—Geschwitz is the only one who is kind of left out in this, and often played for
morphing to fit each circumstance (though with some respect to the piece’s symmetry). But the surroundings of Heike Scheele’s funhouse set stay oddly the same, the same set pieces rearranging themselves slightly for each scene. Lulu’s image is an obsession of the
characters—the Painter’s paintings, we see, are all of her—but it’s at the same
time entirely unstable. Her autonomy is limited, though her self-confession
(the Lied der Lulu, quoted above) gets a round of applause from the clowns,
still under her spell. Yet we seemingly see her true self a few times: first
when she peels offs that bodysuit for Dr. Schön immediately after the Painter’s
death, later proclaimed to be the one man she ever actually loved. The second I’ll get to in a second.
Running through the whole production is a, wait for it,
metatheatrical deconstruction thing. (Never saw that coming.) Lulu performs at
times—her dance, her modeling–on a miniature stage replicating that of the
Semper Oper (which apparently was the old Copenhagen opera house when the opera
was performed there), and panels replicating the auditorium interior dot the set. Another tiny model of the theater hangs out stage left. Most significantly Alwa is revealed as the composer of Lulu, starting to scribble at the “one could write an interesting
opera about this” line and continuing to write occasionally for some time.
Sometimes the characters read from music he hands them, prominently Lulu’s “ist
das noch der Diwan” line. She’s only doing what Alwa is telling her, only
behaving as the dark side of his own desires.
uses a new completion by Eberhard Kloke rather than the standard Friedrich Cerha
one. Based on what I understood of
Cerha’s work (which obviously was mistaken), I was surprised at how much was
very different, but suffice it to say that Kloke departs much more from Berg’s
style than Cerha did. Kloke has a tendency to put things in quotation marks,
ensembles becoming oddly opera buffa and the Wedekind song quote leaping out. I didn’t find it very convincing, mostly fragmented and doodly. He also wrote several virtuosic solos for violin, accordion, and piano, which
is where Herheim comes in again.
The musicians playing these solos appear onstage, and they
are all doubles for Lulu. I took this as a commentary on Lulu’s incompletedness. The act began with a little pantomime where
Alwa and the actual conductor argue about who gets to start, but it becomes
clear that Alwa and the establishment in general are no longer in charge (just
as Berg is not in control of the score), their standing and control falling
faster than Jungfrau Railways stock. The solos show Lulu herself is trying to
take over and playing the tune.
without powerful men who want her, and the world has seemingly decided it is time
for her to be punished. Her doubles playing the solos are usurped by a
mechanical instrument, a hurdy-gurdy. It only needs to be given a crank to take
over, reasserting the force of the composer and of the opera house (the score
quotes a tune by Wedekind, the hurdy-gurdy takes the place of the tiny stage on
a cart and later in larger form the small Semperoper stage). Lulu is
ensnared again and she’s off to London. The rest plays as an even more
nightmarish version of the first acts, with the clowns finally taking their
revenge. In another bit of dark comedy, she is stabbed with an umbrella, like the one she played with in the very first scene (symmetry again).
clutters), but we get the story with unusual clarity and immediacy. It’s just
augmented with the constant interrogation of why we are telling it.
against those of any opera house and I could easily write a post just about
them (cue a few commenters asking me why I didn’t—if you haven’t noticed, guys,
I have some other favorite topics). Cornelius Meister conducted the excellent
orchestra in a very tense and dark interpretation, with a post-Romantic,
Mahlerian weight to the more melodic passages (you know the one I mean). He’s a conductor to watch, he’s going places. Lulu
is a role where even weakness is impressive, and strapping on the required false
eyelashes constitutes a brave act. But while many seem owned by Berg’s music,
Gisela Stille has made it her own. Her voice is impressively forceful and full
in tone, with steely certainty through the scariest passages without ever
leaving the character. She might not have the ultimate ease at the very top,
but her strength throughout the rest of her range more than compensates.
weak Florestan on Sunday, though his voice is not exactly fresh it was
consistently solid. Alone among the cast he tended to overact, though in this
case hamminess kind of works, Alwa is already quite taken with himself. Markus
Marquandt was a young-ish Schön with an impressive voice and authority, and a
genuinely frightening appearance at the end of the opera. The production
neglected the Gräfin Geschwitz a bit, but Christa Mayer sounded excellent.
high on Herheim’s priority list is the intricacies of Berg’s twelve-tone
technique. Berg’s stage directions are notoriously numerous and, to analysts,
portrayed in the musical texture with a degree of complexity and integration
surpassing anything in Wagner. Herheim follows many of those directions, but
adds a lot that doesn’t have a specific antecedent in Berg’s musical-dramatic
structure. That he does not take a gnostic analyst’s approach is a grave sin
according to some (like the aptly-named Zwölftöner), but I have to say I
don’t mind a bit. Not that I would object to a staging that does incorporate
this kind of analysis—even if 99% of the audience doesn’t know about the
significance of that B natural (and half of those who do only hear it because
George Perle told them to), those details add up to create a full drama.
privilege as the only valid option. Herheim’s production was to me new, exciting, and meaningful, and thus
has value. (I do admit that a few times I was very aware that he was not
staging the music, most blatantly when Geschwitz stared at the painting without
the accompaniment of the portrait chords.) The problem with Perle’s argument regarding performing Lulu is the basic premise that there is one correct way to do most of it. But it’s a rich, multifaceted piece, and as elusive as the
title character itself, and the theorist’s approach is only one way to
illuminate its depths.