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West Edge Opera

ALBAN BERG'S LULU is not the kind of opera that one expects to see announced in the prospectus of a regional chamber opera group. Even for West Edge Opera, the peripatetic, risk-taking troupe that is known for producing intriguing repertory on a limited budget in various Berkeley and Oakland locals, the choice seemed a bit overly ambitious, if not foolhardy. Yet with an outstanding cast of committed singing actors, twenty instrumentalists, and a production team that explored the opera's gritty realism within the stylized trappings of 1920s German cinema, this Lulu unexpectedly came to life and scored a magnificent success.

The catalyst for this pipe dream becoming a reality was music director Jonathan Khuner. As the son of a member of the Kolisch Quartet—the group that introduced, among other modernist works, Berg's Lyric Suite in 1927—Khuner grew up surrounded by Berg's music and developed a unique connection to the composer's lush, Romantic-flavored brand of atonalism. Having assisted with productions of Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera, Khuner's spearheading of this project was undoubtedly the realization of a long-held dream.

The decision to produce the opera in the waiting area of Oakland's abandoned 16th Street train station was a masterstroke. The decrepit, graffiti-covered structure had not seen significant foot traffic since the 1989 earthquake forced its closure. Because the space is now removed from the power grid and sewer system, portable lights and toilets had to be supplied, but the setting contributed palpably to the sense of occasion. The performance on July 25 did not start on time as attendees ambled about and chatted in the aisles, bemused by the improbability of the venue and the opera they were about to hear in it.

Elkhanah Pulitzer's production utilized the chipped architectural details and heat-stressed paint as a splendid setting for Chad Owens's handsome semicircular stage construction; a curtained partition that gave the players spaces from which they could emerge and disappear from view. The decor, Christine Crook's circus costumes, and ghastly white make up worn by the principals, implied a abstracted vision for the work, but gritty realism was Pulitzer's goal. Calling upon the cast to engage in several graphic sexual simulations and the artist in the title role to appear fully nude at one point, the compelling force of human carnality was unflinchingly on display, as were the devastating effects of sexual obsession, violence, and money. The cast followed their director and conductor courageously and the results were vivid and unforgettable.

In voice, figure, and deportment, it is difficult to imagine wanting more from a Lulu than what soprano Emma McNairy presented in her role debut. Possessing a voice of unexpected range, power, and endurance for so young an artist, not to mention a pure silvery tone from bottom to ringing top, McNairy's portrayal moved from strength to strength throughout the performance, communicating the character's accumulation of experience with fearless poise. Her decline after serving time in prison for murdering Dr. Schön was pitiful and sympathetic. The clarity of her diction and powerful emission filled the room with ease and she dominated each scene until Lulu's luck finally runs out at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

Philip Skinner was authoritative and severe as the publishing magnate, Dr. Schön. As the one man who seemed a match for Lulu's powerful attraction, his downfall was no less tragic or human. Tenor Alexander Boyer sang the role of Alwa with a sturdy diligence though the effort seemed to mute his dramatic involvement at times. Tenor Michael Jankosky impressed in the punishing role of the Painter. Soprano Buffy Baggott struggled to make a strong impression as Countess Geschwitz, but the cuts in the score seemingly diminishing the character's importance in the narrative. Baggott was at her best in Geschwitz's plaintive soliloquy in the final scene. Zachary Altman sang the dual roles of the Animal Tamer and Acrobat while also providing pre-performance and intermission stunts. Bojan Knezevic was appropriately vile as Schigolch.

Without the weight of a full symphonic aggregation, Khuner coaxed bright, detailed textures from his players in Berg's orchestral interludes. With only a small group of instrumentalists to bring the score to life, Khuner achieved a cohesive and effective ensemble sound in this complex music that fully served its blend of menace and sensuality. When accompanying the action on stage, Khuner established a dynamic balance between the voices and instrumental textures that avoided the murky quality that can easily creep in with a larger band. Khuner and his committed group of players, none of whom probably dreamed they would ever get such an opportunity, gave everything to a performance, which few who were present are likely to forget. —Jeffery S. McMillan 

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