Attending a performance of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu is like going through Marine Corp boot camp. While you’re doing it you wonder why on earth you ever attempted such a stress filled enterprise. When it’s over you feel proud of yourself and are glad you don’t have to do it again. Lulu is an opera that if you admit to not being overwhelmed by its artistry will get you terminally scorned by the high art cognoscenti as a neanderthal, or worse a middle brow. It’s a fascinating piece that is kept alive because musicians really like it for technical reasons that have nothing to do with its appeal to an audience. Who cares that two of its scenes make up a sonata form movement? The average opera goer would likely be happy to see one performance of Lulu, if the production was very good as is the current staging at the Met, and then move on to something else. A repeat auditing might be tolerable in a quarter of a century.

What’s wrong with it? It’s too long. Berg died before the opera could be finished leaving it in a looser form than he likely would have settled on had he lived. Many of the scenes are overcrowded and poorly organized. It’s ironic that the strongest and most dramatically compelling scene is the opera’s last, which Berg did not fully complete. Also, an opera which exclusively focuses on lust, child abuse, murder, robbery, prostitution, sickness, venereal disease, and the square of all the deadly sins gets wearing over four hours of cacophony. The libretto is by the composer after two plays by Frank Wedekind. Berg has overplotted his opera. By comparison the whole Ring Cycle is much easier to understand than the various craziness that populates Lulu.

Artistically it’s not in the same league as Berg’s earlier opera Wozzeck. I was at Wozzeck’s Met premiere – March 5, 1959. It was a triumph both because of the intrinsic worth of the work and high quality of the production. It’s also much shorter. Today’s performance was equally successful, but more because of the excellence of its staging and performance than because of the high artistic quality of the score.

South African artist William Kentridge was in charge of the production. He previously did Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Met in 2010. As he did in his first Met outing he made extensive use of projections – both images and words. Many of the projections are of black ink drawings by Kentridge. It’s hard to evaluate the effectiveness of these projection from a TV broadcast as you can only watch what the director wants or allows you to see.

The sets and costumes in a work as far removed from conventional reality as is Lulu could be just about anything. So cladding Dr Schön in a chartreuse suit was fine. The use of two silent characters not in the libretto was an unnecessary distraction. There’s a lot of symbolism in this opera, all of which passes me by. So perhaps I was missing something important. But take away the projections and the two extras and the staging was rather conventional, except for the people walking around with lamp shades on their heads.

Marlis Petersen as Lulu

Marlis Petersen as Lulu

The German soprano Marlis Petersen has made a specialty of Lulu for 18 years. She recently announced that this run of the opera would be her farewell to the part. She has the role down to perfection, but I suspect she feels that at age 47 she is about to become too old for the youthful Lulu. She has every nuance of the  abused Lulu woven into her onstage persona. It will likely be along time before another soprano dominates this part the way she has. Lulu can seem like a really nasty piece of work, but Ms Petersen portrays her as mainly a victim. As for her singing, it’s hard to tell if any note is where it’s supposed to be. You can’t be off pitch in an opera without tonality. There were a few notes that seemed stressed; at least I think they were.

Johan Reuter was Dr Schön, and Jack the Ripper in the last scene. He’s Lulu’s abuser, then lover, the husband, and finally a corpse after Lulu shoots him accidently. The Danish baritone has sung Barak in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met and also has Berg’s Wozzeck in his repertoire. He has a fine voice centered on its middle range.

Susan Graham is obviously still up to a challenge. She learned the role of the Countess Geschwitz for this run of Lulu. She’s got a way to go before she can realize the emotional content of Lulu’s wannabe lesbian lover. But she’s such a fine artist that she’ll nail the part if she keeps doing it.

Franz Grundheber was appropriately seedy as Lulu’s father, or lover, or just hanger on. He has sung both Wozzeck and Rigoletto at the Met. I can’t think of another baritone who has sung both these roles at the Met.

American tenor Daniel Brenna has been singing Wagner in Europe. He made his Met debut as Alwa in this run of Lulu. He has a firm tenor that was fine for the only character in this opera about depravity who truly loved Lulu. Well, perhaps Geschwitz did too. He’s been singing Siegfried. How he’d do in this part in a large house like the Met is impossible to tell from his Alwa.

The rest of the roles were all well done, particularly noteworthy was Martin Winkler as the Animal Trainer and the Acrobat.

James Levine was supposed to conduct this new production, but his fragile health didn’t allow it. Lothar Koenigs was brought in relatively late to lead these performances. He has a good grasp of Berg’s complicated score and had no trouble guiding the Met’s great orchestra through Berg’s dense notes.

Let’s try to put this opera in the right perspective. It’s not one of the 20th century’s great masterpieces. Right now it’s fashionable to overpraise it because the average operagoer won’t particularly care for it. Consider what was being written at the same time as Lulu. Shostakovich wrote his Lady Macbeth and Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess in the mid thirties when Berg was getting rid of key signatures. Both, in my view are better works than Lulu. Alas Gershwin died of a brain tumor and Stalin put the kibosh on Shostakovich. Berg died from a carbuncle on his back that led to sepsis before he could finish Lulu. And so died 20th century opera and perhaps 21st century as well.

 

 

Metropolitan Opera House
November 21, 2015 Matinee

LULU
Alban Berg-Alban Berg

Lulu…………………..Marlis Petersen
Dr. Schön………………Johan Reuter
Jack the Ripper…………Johan Reuter
Countess Geschwitz………Susan Graham
Alwa…………………..Daniel Brenna
Schigolch………………Franz Grundheber
Animal Tamer……………Martin Winkler
Acrobat………………..Martin Winkler
Painter………………..Paul Groves
African Prince………….Paul Groves
Physician………………James Courtney
Professor………………James Courtney
Policeman………………James Courtney
Prince…………………Alan Oke
Manservant……………..Alan Oke
Marquis………………..Alan Oke
Dresser………………..Elizabeth DeShong
Schoolboy………………Elizabeth DeShong
Page…………………..Elizabeth DeShong
Theater Manager…………Julian Close
Banker…………………Julian Close
Journalist……………..Tyler Duncan
Servant………………..Paul Corona
Designer……………….Kathryn Day
Girl…………………..Ashley Emerson
Mother…………………Jane Shaulis
Solo Performer………….Joanna Dudley
Solo Performer………….Andrea Fabi

Conductor………………Lothar Koenigs
Production……………..William Kentridge
Co-Director…………….Luc De Wit
Production Designer……..Catherine Meyburgh
Set Designer……………Sabine Theunissen
Costume Designer………..Greta Goiris
Lighting designer……….Urs Schönebaum
TV Director…………….Matthew Diamond