United States Berg, Lulu: Soloists, Orchestra and Cast of Metropolitan Opera, New York, Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Metropolitan Opera Live in HD Production broadcast to Komedia Cinema, Brighton, 21.11.2015. (RB)
Lulu: Marlis Petersen
Countess Geschwitz: Susan Graham
Alwa, Dr Schön’s Son, A Composer: Daniel Brenna
The Painter/The African Prince: Paul Groves
Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper: Johan Reuter
Schigolch: Franz Grundheber
The Animal Tamer/The Acrobat: Martin Winkler
The Wardrobe Mistress/The Schoolboy/The Page: Elizabeth Deshong
The Prince/The Manservant/The Marquis: Alan Oke
The Theatre Manager/The Banker: Julian Close
Production: William Kentridge
Co-Director: Luc De Wit
Production Designer: Catherine Meyburgh
Set Designer: Sabine Theunissen
Costume Designer: Greta Goiris
Lighting Designer: Urs Schönebaum
Live in HD Director: Matthew Diamond
Live in HD Host: Deborah Voigt
Berg’s monumental final opera was written in the febrile anti-intellectual atmosphere of the 1930s and it was left incomplete at his death in 1935. Berg’s widow asked Schoenberg to complete the opera and the latter at first accepted and then declined the invitation. The opera was left incomplete until 1979 when Friedrich Cerha completed the orchestration of Act 3. It is this three Act version which is performed most frequently nowadays and it is this which formed the basis for the Met’s new production.
The opera is based on the Lulu plays of Frank Wedekind who, both in his personal life and in his plays, was keen to ditch prevailing notions of conventional sexual morality. The eponymous heroine of Lulu is an alluring seductress and a sexual psychopath and we watch in incredulity as she kills her husbands or drives them to suicide. Lulu maintains a callous indifference to their fates while manipulating those around her to ensure her own survival. However, all of the characters in this opera are both perpetrators and victims enslaved to social and sexual forces they are unable to control. Lulu’s trajectory from street urchin to high society temptress to seedy prostitute is startling and shocking and she ultimately becomes the victim of the men she sought to destroy. Interestingly, her final descent into the abyss is precipitated by a financial crisis where irresponsible trading in shares leaves many of the characters destitute – a prescient allegory for our own times. There is a pervasive air of pitch black expressionism and sexual amorality which runs through this opera, and when performed well it still has the power to shock.
This production by William Kentridge was highly unusual in that he projected a series of arresting visual images on to the set while the action was taking place (the effect reminded me of some of the films of Peter Greenaway). We therefore saw images of newspapers, ink drawings of nude women and of famous people from the early part of the 20th Century, and more abstract images such as Rorschach blots and blood spatter projected on to the set. Pieces of paper were appended to Lulu’s dress with ink drawings of her breasts and genitalia on them and she and other characters in the opera were wearing enormous, over-sized white gloves and had white lantern shapes over their head with faces or symbols drawn on them. There were also two silent character present throughout the opera: a woman wearing a suit who was either playing the piano or sprawling around inside it and a valet type character who seemed to walk in a very exaggerated angular way. Much of the staging and visual projections were highly inventive and creative and in a way they enhanced the unfeeling, expressionist mood of the opera. However, I felt that at some points (particularly in the first act) the constant bombardment of fluctuating visual images became distracting and undercut the dramatic action taking place on stage.
Marlis Petersen has sung the role of Lulu many times in the past and she was absolutely magnificent in the part. She sang Berg’s exceptionally difficult score with an effortless beauty of tone and perfect intonation. She coped brilliantly with some of the very high vocal writing and moved seamlessly between feelings of sexual allure, manipulation and control. At some points of the opera we see her singing with a frightening intensity as she struggles to survive before she moves to the gaping emptiness at the heart of Lulu – in some ways that is the most distressing thing about this piece. Berg’s opera is palindromic and we need to see both the black heart of Lulu as well as the fragility and fear, and Petersen conveyed these feelings superbly in the frightening final scene. Petersen has announced that she will no longer be singing Lulu after this production so it would certainly be worth going to see this final performance.
The rest of the cast were impressive and assured in their roles. Susan Graham brought a lyricism and poignancy to the role of Countess Geschwitz. She portrayed the obsessional lesbian Countess as one of the more normal characters in the opera (I guess in this particular opera she probably is!) and brought a radiance and tenderness to the final scene where she sings her final farewells to Lulu. Johan Reuter brought a haughty, imperious quality to Dr Schön in the early scenes and gave us rich dark timbres and rock solid vocal projection. Schön’s soul is pitch black but conflicted and paranoid and I was not entirely convinced Reuter entirely nailed these complicated feelings in the early scenes, although his final re-appearance as Jack the Ripper was chilling. Daniel Brenna has a gorgeous voice and he brought a wonderful vocal bloom to the lyrical duets with Petersen in Act 2. However, at times he seemed unsure how to capture the character of Alwa for example he seemed rather at sea when Lulu asked him, “Isn’t this the sofa on which your father bled to death?”.
The rest of the cast gave commendable performances although I was particularly impressed with Martin Winkler in the role of the seedy acrobat – this was a hollow, Brechtian version of Wagner’s Klingsor. Conductor Lothar Koenigs, who had to stand in for James Levine at short notice, kept a tight grip on Berg’s opulent score. I particularly enjoyed the delicate Romantic fragrance he and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra brought to the second Act, the dizzying effects depicting the financial collapse and some of the atmospheric music in the final scene of Act 3. Koenigs kept a tight grip on musical structure throughout and he brought an admirable clarity to the set piece numbers while weaving together Berg’s recurring tone rows to form an intricate musical tapestry.
Overall, there was much to admire in this production from the Met with Marlis Petersen in particular giving us a stunning performance.