Lulu, the destroyer destroyed

“Ich habe nie in der Welt etwas andres scheinen wollen, als wofür man mich genommen hat, und man hat mich nie in der Welt für etwas anderes genommen, als was ich bin.” 
(“I’ve never wanted to appear to the world as anything other than what I am perceived to be, and no one in the world has ever taken me for something other than what I am.”)

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

Lulu appears first as Eve, the original tempter of men,
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
Lulu looks different in every scene, her dress and hairstyle
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.

Of course in Act 3 things get interesting. This production
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.

But Lulu is powerless
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).
It’s all an amazingly elaborate spectacle (though less cluttered than Herheim’s Rosenkavalier or Parsifal—not that clutter is bad, those are some glorious
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.
The musical values were really wonderful and could stand up
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.
As Alwa Jürgen Müller was in much-improved form from his
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.
One thing that is not
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.
But I think there’s more than one way to make a meaningful Lulu. I don’t think 12-tone analysis should be accorded any inherent
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.
Go see this one if you can!
Photos copyright Matthias Creutziger

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  1. Perle would doubtless have loved the idea of a heavily analytical production based on serial terms because the only director fit to stage it would be, you know, Perle himself.

    Having that represented as my view is amusing, though by mentioning Perle I suppose I let myself in for it. And yet the ‘Ideal Production’ article is deeply flawed, as I hoped I implied, in the sense that Perle is happy to lecture stage directors on matters unequivocal (the notorious B natural) but is curiously reticent about less clear-cut answers. Identifying layered references, allusions and the like is as much part of the analyst’s job, but since in these cases we are left with ambiguity once the facts have been established the theatre director is, tellingly, not to be trusted.

    On the theme of serial intricacies and ambiguity, I would briefly do away with the fallacy you’re implying, of Lulu as a priori elusive and multivalent, and serial analysis as reductionist, or even worse, the one true way. In truth the more thorough the analysis the more hermeneutically open this work becomes. You make the ‘gnostic’ approach (sorry, but it’s about time that term acquired some scare quotes) sound like an odious straitjacket, but I think it’s silly to suggest we can’t have this and theatre, as if engaging with the score would limit a director’s hand. But in Lulu there’s more musically-grounded scope to do this in a counter-intuitive Regie way than in Mozart or whatever. Herheim took the Wedekind text and ran, making beguiling and enigmatic theatre out of the play, and ignorance of the score would be fine if it were incidental music (incidentally that was what it felt reduced to for most of this production) or we were like ‘serialism, who cares?’, a kind of inverted Babbitry which speaks for itself none too flatteringly. But this is Lulu! Geschwitz and the picture chords is just the beginning of a long list that could be compiled of disconnects a LOT more conspicuous than Perle’s B naturals. It’s difficult to watch Regie so oblivious to the music, not through reacting to some theorist but because one hears it all too readily.

    Apart from that nice review btw!

  2. I don't think I AM implying that fallacy or if I am I didn't mean to. Sorry to quote myself but I said just above, "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."

    But there are different ways of engaging with a work. I don't think this production was nearly as deaf to music as you do–it was perhaps deaf to serialism but the action and musical gesture were clearly coordinated as always with Herheim.

    I know gnostic is overused but for Berg and his codes I think it's justified.

  3. Yes you did write that, but my objection wasn’t that a serial reading was being denied its full credit but the way you chose to frame it. I would much prefer to think of a staging that takes some account of how the work was written and what that might say to us as the means rather than the ends (as far as ends are concerned we ARE on the same page, auteurs are good for this opera). Serial technique becomes the handmaiden of expression in Berg, and to dismiss it as some compositional abstraction in favour of exploring the opera’s other possibilities is to limit them; it is the locus for the work's richness and elusiveness. I really should have gone with Adorno on this rather than Perle’s serial bingo.

    The flair of the stage action really is something but insofar as Herheim stages the music his response is mostly superficial. There were some inventive things in there and much that puts a twist on what a traditionalist might do. Personenregie registered the more subtle statements of the Hauptrhythmus about half the time. But mostly he's latching onto things on the level of instrumental effects and, ironically, wide interval gaps. Maybe the problem is mine for not ignoring which sets these were derived from, but when we get Geschwitz’s trope front and centre – and I don’t mean here Perle’s B natural but rather its prominence in Act III, which could be taken to mean many things – and unexplained passivity from her onstage, the music given over (though not reinscribed, mind) to antics from Schigolch… Really, I don’t know.

    Forgot to mention before, but am glad to see you liked Meister! He rarely seems to get the reviews he deserves from German-language critics.