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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Lulu

William Kentridge re-imagines Alban Berg's visionary, violent opera. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Isn't she lovely: Marliss Petersen is the femme fatale in Lulu.
Photo by Kristian Schuller © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
One of the most eagerly anticipated new productions of the 2015 season is Lulu, staged by the South African artist and director William Kentridge. Mr. Kentridge's previous effort for the Met, The Nose met with critical and audience acclaim. Can he do the same for the sordid story of Lulu, the female "earth spirit" who leaves a trail of broken hearts and dead bodies in her wake?

Lulu is based on two plays by Franz Wedekind, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora ("Pandora's Box"), two titles that effectively summarize the dangerous sexuality of the title character. It is a tragedy of the absurd, with its central character an innocent whose sexuality and sensuality dooms every man she encounters to rivalry, jealousy and ultimately, death. Eventually, she moves to London and becomes a prostitute. Her third and final customer in the last act is Jack the Ripper, and finally Lulu comes to a bad and bloody end.

Starting in 1937, the opera was presented as a two-act torso until the 1970s, when the death of Berg's widow Helene allowed composer Friederich Cerha to work from the composer's sketches and finish the final act. The Met has presented the complete Lulu on its stage since 1980.

The opera is written in Berg's spidery modern style, with challenging, jagged vocal lines and stabs and blurts of orchestration. And yet there is a grand design here, a flowing undercurrent of almost Mozart-like melodicism that allows the characters to express their rich emotional lives while still capturing the disturbing nature of the onstage seductions and off-stage killings.

Whether two or three acts, productions of Lulu often incorporate elaborate costumes, sculpture and a video element (Berg even commissioned a movie reel to be shown in Act Two documenting Lulu's trial and escape.) This should suit Mr. Kentridge's mixed-media approach perfectly.

This new production replaces the Met's classic John Dexter staging. It features a stellar cast with Marliss Petersen in the title role, Susan Graham as the Countess Geschwitz (one of the earliest openly lesbian characters in opera) and baritone Johan Reuter, who shone in the Met's recent revival of Die Frau Ohne Schatten. James Levine conducts.

Lulu premieres on Nov. 5. The Nov. 21 performance will be telecast as part of the Met's Live in HD series with a special 12:30 start time.

Recording Recommendations:
Lulu: Teresa Stratas
Countess Geschwitz: Hanna Schwarz
Dr. Schon: Franz Mazura
Alwa:  Kenneth Riegel
There are a few recordings of Lulu with conductors delving into the two-act torso before the complete work was at last available. The authoritative three-act version was first staged at the Opera Garnier in Paris under the baton of Pierre Boulez. It remains the winner and still champion among Lulu recordings, with Teresa Stratas searing and intense in the extremely difficult title role.

Tickets for Lulu are available at MetOpera.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office.

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