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Lulu at the Met (November 2015): A good thing becomes too much

Alban Berg’s Lulu is generally acknowledged as one of the master pieces of twentieth century opera. However, because of its many musical and theatrical challenges, it is seldom performed. The last time Lulu was seen at the Metropolitan opera was in 1980. Therefore I looked forward to attending the Met’s 2015-16 production with eager anticipation. The experience was a mixed one, but it was gratifying to hear and see it performed with a sincere commitment and a broad vision.

Artist/director William Kentridge is given star billing for the production. Unfortunately the billing is far too accurate. Although his drawings are gorgeous and often used with wit as they are projected over the entirety of the stage, there are far too many. Constantly changing, they distract from the music, the singing and the story, which should be allowed to be the focus of our attention.

Admittedly there are some wonderful visual effects, among them an amusing moment in the opening scene when a projected door fools us into thinking it’s a real one opening and closing, the magical opening of the second act when the set seems to be peeled back to reveal a steep staircase disappearing up into the unknown, and a moment of perfection after Lulu is stabbed, when the line drawing projected on the panel hiding the deed develops a tiny drip like a black tear.

The final moments were also handled elegantly. The projections stopped. Susan Graham (Countess Geschwitz) sang her last lines with poignant beauty. Suddenly, the touching quiet was shattered by Lulu’s scream, and the projections changed in perfect co-ordination with Berg’s music. Then after the last chord of the piece, Kentridge put up one final projection: “Der Tanz ist aus” (“The dance is over”).The unexpected change kept the audience from beginning to applaud, and so we had the all-too-rare treat of a long moment of silence after the piece was over.

Unfortunately, the orchestra did not maintain an appropriate balance on opening night. All too often the musicians played so loudly that the singers could not be heard. For this I hold conductor, Lothar Koenigs, responsible, although he deserves kudos for his overall phrasing of the piece.

The cast, while solid, was seldom gripping either in their singing or acting. Outside of differentiating the men by different colored costumes, it seemed that Kentridge gave them little support in creating unique characters. We didn’t experience the particular needs or fantasies that make Lulu irresistible to each of them. As a result the pattern of men falling in love with her and then dying, which marks Lulu’s ascent during the first half of the opera, felt slightly repetitious. Of six men who court Lulu, the two vocal standouts were Elizabeth DeShong and Alan, Oke. Ms. DeShong has a clear, brilliant soprano. Unfortunately her characterization of the School Boy consisted of throwing her body about like a strange rag doll. Mr. Oke, on the other hand, not only sang excellently but used his voice and body to delineate the Prince and the Marquis as two unique and memorable characters.

Marlis Peterson as Lulu, although stronger vocally on the top of her register than the bottom, had all the notes, good articulation and sang accurately, but failed to use her voice to create a complex character of variety and mysterious femininity. Indeed, with tedious regularity she behaved as if, by waving her attractive legs, old and young, male and female would be drawn to her. Again I am forced to wonder if Kentridge is not at fault here, since he also added a female character sitting on a grand piano at the side of the stage who also did little more than wave her legs about throughout the show. Perhaps he thought that in building on the Acrobat’s line to Alwa, one of Lulu’s admirers, “You have written a melodrama in which my fiancée’s (Lulu) two legs play principal parts,” he was illuminating the piece. Instead he simply created yet one more distraction.

I am perplexed by Kentridge’s vision of the Countess, who is supposedly enormously wealthy, but whom he clothed as a dowdy Hausfrau. He also consistently staged her so she was hard to find–until the end, when, as I said, Ms. Graham was allowed to create the kind of magic that we have come to expect of her. It is hard to believe that Kentridge is uncomfortable with a lesbian character, but his handling of the Countess deprived us of the chance to experience that Lulu’s seductive attraction is not limited by gender or person. (At one point Lulu sings provocatively. “When I saw myself in the mirror, I wished I was a man–a man married to me.”)

Mounting Lulu is a difficult undertaking. The cast and orchestra are large, its libretto dense, and its extraordinary music challenging. It is most unfortunate, therefore, that the Metropolitan threw away this opportunity to explore this opera’s depths and musical beauty. Rather it continued its descent into “Koncept” productions. It offered us plenty of alluring spectacle, but deprived us of the special aesthetic and emotional satisfactions unique to opera at it best, when it combines great music, evocative singing, engaging story, believable acting, and supporting spectacle to bring human passions to life.

Featured image: Marlis Peterson in Lulu. (c) The Metropolitan Opera via metopera.org.

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