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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Opera Review: A Fatal Heroine Overdose

A new Lulu tears up the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

lu·lu: ˈlo͞olo͞o/ noun (informal), noun: lulu; plural noun: lulus
1. an outstanding example of a particular type of person or thing. Usage: "as far as nightmares went, this one was a lulu"
Smoking hot: Marliss Petersen as Lulu in the new Met production.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
Alban Berg's Lulu is an opera that lives up to the above definition. For his second and final opera Berg set two plays (Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora) by Franz Wedekind and set them to a dizzying score that uses a wide range of techniques: chromaticism, serialism, atonality and even jazz to a kaleidoscopic rush through the life of a femme fatale who destroys every man and woman who crosses her path. This new Met production (seen Monday night) is the second in the history of this illustrious company, who have made this kinky, knotty opera something of a specialty.

The title role of Lulu is an expression of primal feminine lust. She's an amoral monster, serving only her own pleasure and needs and (for the most part) oblivious to the disastrous effect her sexuality has on those around her. She runs through a series of lovers (the Professor, the Artist, Dr. Schön, his son Alwa, the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, an Athlete, a Banker and a Pimp) engineering the doom of all by her mere presence in their lives and murdering Schön. In the final act (composed by Berg, orchestrated by Friedrich Cerha and first performed in 1979) she becomes a prostitute. Her third client is Jack the Ripper (played by the same singer as Dr. Schön) who gleefully kills her with a knife.

Marliss Petersen is aristocratic in the title role, recalling Dietrich in her onstage presence. She is vocally fearless and arching her silvery instrument high above the orchestral clatter, and hitting the death-defying high notes cleanly. She plays out Lulu's sudden murder of Dr. Schön and subsequent arrest as an inevitable event: the character reaching a height and plummeting. Her swift fall into destitution, prostitution and death plays a complicated self-engineered suicide. When she finally meets her end, there is a sense of balance, justice and regret all at once.

She is surrounded by a galaxy of talented singers. Susan Graham is the biggest name here as the love-lorn Countess Geschwitz, one of the first openly lesbian characters in a major opera. Her death scene (when she too, is stabbed by Jack) ends the opera on a heart-rending note. Johan Reuter is a muscular presence as Dr. Schön, doubling in the role of Jack the Ripper. Tenor Daniel Brenna is compelling his Met debut as the hapless Alwa. This may be a self-portrait of the composer--he is forever working on an unperformable opera. All navigate the steep, treacherous terrain of this score with nimble instruments.

The smaller roles are no less important. Tenor Paul Groves is a welcome presence in the dual role of the Painter and the "African Prince", a political correction of the "Negro" from the original libretto. Baritone Martin Winkler hams it up as the Acrobat and doubles as the Animal Tamer who introduces the opera as a portrait of a twisted menagerie. James Courtney sings three roles and contributes with a rock-solid bass. Franz Grundheber (a familiar name to Wagner and Strauss-philes who rarely appears at the Met) is Schigolch, the ratty old man who may be Lulu's father or just another one of her shattered loves.

The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Lulu is by William Kentridge, the South African conceptual artist known for his 2010 production of The Nose. For Lulu, Mr. Kentridge employs film, stop-motion animation, paper masks and Rorschach blots, setting the opera in an Expressionist whirl of black, white and distinctive splashes of color. The heroine enters masked, with a white slip of paper covered by an upside down fermata representing her exposed breast. This Lulu is a fever-dream in a blizzard of torn-out dictionary pages, an organized chaos forced to run in place. Visually it is almost as overwhelming as the score itself.

Conductor Lothar König (a late replacement for Met music director James Levine) showed his mastery of this snarled granny knot of a score, presenting the fine details of Berg's orchestration and building it into an enormous bridge of sound that spans three acts. The mixture of styles: jazz, 12-tone, calliope and 19th century Romanticism (to name just a few) held no terrors for him or the Met orchestra, who played like the champs23. In an opera filled with high-wire risks for performers and musicians alike, he was the ultimate safety net.

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