Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget
My second trip to New York City was a series of happy firsts. It was June 1967, I was just sixteen, and though five years earlier my mom and I had traveled there by train, this time round (with Dad in tow) we were arriving, thrillingly, by airplane — my first flight anywhere. We were staying at the famous Biltmore, with its "under the clock" rendezvous, and for the first time I could roam an intoxicatingly vertical Midtown on my own. But the trip's mecca was the shining new Metropolitan Opera House, just opened the previous September. The Friday of my visit, the Met launched a ten-day season of twentieth-century repertory by the visiting Hamburg Staatsoper — the new house's very first foreign opera troupe. Saturday's offering was Berg's Lulu, in its New York stage premiere, and I couldn't imagine spending that evening anywhere but orchestra seat AA111 at the Met.
How had Lulu seduced the teenage me? It began when I discovered her elder sibling, Wozzeck, a year earlier, via the Deutsche Grammophon recording under Karl Böhm. I embraced not just its bracing sounds but its moral ambiguity — a liberating change from the clearer-cut plots of the bread-and-butter operas I knew. An operagoing family friend cautioned me about the slippery slope works like Wozzeck presented. And once I started reading about the intriguingly incomplete Lulu,something was stirred in me that no other opera had touched. Child abuse? Prostitution? Lesbianism? Underwear swapping? Jack the Ripper? Just hearing about Lulu made me feel more adult.
I ordered a ticket as soon as the Hamburg season was announced. I bought and devoured a paperback of Berg's sources, Wedekind's Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box. Over and over I trekked downtown to the Detroit Public Library, where I'd sit with the old Universal Edition vocal score and the out-of-print Columbia LPs of a Vienna performance from 1951, following Lulu/Nelly/Eva's vertiginous vocal lines and marveling at Berg's ability to tap a palpable humanity from Wedekind's strange brood. "Die Geschwitz" became my first operatic gay icon.
It wasn't just suburban teens for whom Lulu was uncommon fare. Berg's widow, Helene, was still alive, still blocking attempts to give the opera a fully playable Act III; and the two-act version "with fragments" remained a rarity, though stagings were gathering speed in Europe, and Santa Fe had presented its American premiere in 1963. Hamburg's 1957 production, staged by Günther Rennert, with its famous circus-tent set by Teo Otto, was the first mounting by a major German house, and it reached New York a decade later with its original conductor, Leopold Ludwig, and Dr. Schön, Toni Blankenheim. Most of the rest of the cast were newcomers to their roles, but not to my opera consciousness. Anneliese Rothenberger (Lulu) was the lovable Sophie of Paul Czinner's film of the Salzburg Rosenkavalier under Karajan, Kerstin Meyer (Geschwitz) the Annina of Karajan's classic Angel LPs. Gerhard Unger (Alwa), an Angel stalwart, had sung Pedrillo to Rothenberger's Konstanze in the recently released Entführung, and Kim Borg (Schigolch) was the silky-slimy Rangoni of the old monaural Christoff Boris. And there in the tiny role of the wardrobe mistress was Maria von Ilosvay, the Gertrude of Karajan's Hänsel und Gretel.
None of them let me down — quite the contrary — but no one was out to outshine anyone else. The Hamburg Opera in those days was a true theatrical ensemble, and the sense of purposeful teamwork was electrifying; I'd never before seen its like in opera. Still, the show was called Lulu, and Rothenberger just couldn't help standing out. No Lulu I've seen since has captured so perfectly the disarming innocence that irradiates the character even at her most seemingly manipulative; I'll never forget her spoken prison-escape chronicle in Act II, delivered with a child's wide-eyed delight that all these improbable events could actually happen. This dewy Lulu was, after all, Sophie, too, and I couldn't help seeing her with a touch of Octavian's enchanted gaze.
Hamburg's Lulu was recorded live by EMI Electrola the following winter with a nearly identical cast, but the album had the bad timing to coincide with DG's starrier version from Berlin under Böhm. Most critics gave that one the palm, but for me the contest was unequal from the start. The 1997 CD remastering of the Hamburg version is hard to find, but the performance still strikes theatrical sparks, and the singers don't betray my memories. In fact — pardon the heresy! — I'd happily sacrifice the Cerha-completed Act III for another torsothe likes of Hamburg's.
Back home a week later, I was gratified to read that Saturday Review's trusty Irving Kolodin had shared my excitement. "The waves of applause that surged up from the enthralled audience at the evening's end," his rave concluded, "left little doubt that this was just the beginning of Lulu's history in New York, but it was a beginning that set a high standard of musical and dramatic craftsmanship for others to match." It was a beginning for me, too, and it set that standard not just for future Lulus but for everything I've seen since that long-ago Saturday night.
PATRICK DILLON, a longtime New Yorker, is a regular correspondent for Opera Canada and Scherzo (Madrid).
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