Metropolitan Opera, New York, Saturday, May 15, 2010, 12:30 PM
“Lulu” Opera in a prologue and three acts by Alban Berg (1885–1935)
Libretto by the composer, based on two plays by Frank Wedekind (1864–1918):
“Erdgeist” (Earth-Spirit) and “Die Büchse der Pandora” (Pandora’s Box)
By Gomesina and Mirabelle
We are not feminists, we aren’t even real women! We’re just the feminine sides of Gomez and Mirabeau. Why are men so afraid of women? The “femme fatale” type in literature is nearly always created by a male author. Is it because we possess the “secret source” of life, called the “va-jay-jay” on Grey’s Anatomy and Oprah? Our minds were allowed to ruminate on these and many other issues because the performance of Mr. Berg’s opera was so fine, clear, and expressive.
This opera is written in a very “difficult” 12-tone melodic/harmonic system, designed to keep the ear from “settling down” in any one key area. That system’s most famous exponent was Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher. A feeling grew in early-twentieth century Vienna, saturated with the music of Bruckner, Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Wagner, that the late Romantic period harmonic vocabulary was just plain worn out, and that a new system for composition needed to arise in order to keep music “fresh.” Remember, dear readers, that at one time even our “major and minor” scales were considered just as arbitrary.
Berg’s music calls for “expanded” hearing, yet as he himself often said, the listener ideally should be conscious of only one thing while listening to his music: how convincing the drama is as a drama. One shouldn’t (and most can’t) be analyzing appearances of the tone rows!
Berg was attracted by the censored plays of Wedekind, which he called “the really new direction—the emphasis on the sensual in modern works.” The recent Tony award winning Broadway musical “Spring Awakening” (music by Duncan Sheik) was also based on a Wedekind play. Berg felt the “great importance of sensuality for everything spiritual.” Evidently he gave way to the “spiritual” in having a long affair with a woman other than his (devoted) wife.
Much has been made of the “amorality” of the title character, Lulu, who seems to be a clueless man-eating courtesan. Lulu, in her wide-eyed innocence, can’t understand “why” all these different men (including one that might even have been her father) throw themselves at her and then meet their deaths. However, if you look at it in terms of archetypes, you realize that she is “W”oman, all women, in an idealized natural state, in conflict with strangling bourgeois morality. Thus it can be seen as a sort of paean to womankind. Twisted, but nevertheless an adoration of woman. Wedekind called Lulu “a soul rubbing the sleep from her eyes in Paradise.” This was a constant preoccupation in Wedekind’s works and in Vienna at that time. Freudian analysis didn’t spring out of nowhere!
There was some unintended (unintended by Berg, that is) laughter in the scenes in which various demimonde types gambling in a salon exclaim over the untrustworthiness of bankers and the plummeting of their investments’ value. Timely stuff.
A claustrophobic hothouse atmosphere, dark interiors, overstuffed furniture, decorative tendrils everywhere, was beautifully shown in the set, lighting, and costume design and staging.
All the singing, major and minor roles, was excellent. Marlis Petersen was a dramatic revelation as Lulu. She made a beautiful sound despite the horrific coloratura demands of the part, and her physicality was sensual and limber. Berg said: “A modern opera needs just as nice singing as ‘Trovatore.’” She was ably partnered by a group of men (and one woman) who have the ill fortune of sacrificing themselves for her attentions: Michael Schade as the Painter who makes her portrait; James Morris as Dr. Schön, half of a father/son duo in love with her; Gary Lehman as Alwa, the son; and the only one who remains true to Lulu to the bitter end, Anne Sofie von Otter as Countess Geschwitz, a lesbian.
Von Otter had the opera’s most heartbreaking moment right at the end: In the London garret they’ve wound up in, with the destitute Lulu working as a common street prostitute, Lulu has just been murdered by her third trick of the night “Jack the Ripper,” who leaves the bedroom and also stabs Geschwitz, who cries out “Lulu, I will love you for all eternity.” Geschwitz is the only one who “gets” Lulu, because she is a woman, despite her sexual orientation. The only “man” Lulu can’t successfully seduce turns out to be a pathological serial killer.
Perhaps the real hero was the last-minute conductor, Fabio Luisi, filling in for the indisposed James Levine whose special cause is this opera. Apparently, Luisi learned this fearsome score in about a month! The playing from the divine Met orchestra was a paragon of transparency and balance, as well as coordination between stage and pit.
At the Met, “every little breeze-y seems to be whispering Luisi”!
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs