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Bavarian State Opera

In his eagerness to add transparency to the tale of Lulu's life and death in Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production of Alban Berg’s opera, stage director and set designer Dmitri Tcherniakov created a unit construction of plexiglass that variously appeared under the lighting conditions devised by designer Gleb Filshtinsky as either transparent or mirrored.  The entire stage consisted of room-forming blocks of plexiglass, held together by metal stanchions. Each partition had rectangular life-sized openings on the sides and at the back to facilitate entrances and exits. The entire action, involving all the principals, took place, however, on the stage front. At the beginning of the first scene, Lulu herself stood up against one wall of plexi, directly in the middle, allowing the Painter to trace her silhouette in thick white marker. This empty "portrait" gained in symbolic meaning as the evening progressed.  Bavarian State Opera presented the complete, three act version of Lulu at the Nationaltheater, using Friedrich Cerha's completion and orchestration of the unfinished third act (seen June 10). 

Tcherniakov gave us a telling representation of the forever enigmatic title character. With the exception of one appearance, Lulu was always in white and she retained a sort of moral innocence throughout the work. We are presented with a Lulu who is, from the beginning, more unhappy, depressed and bitterly disappointed than (as often represented) coldly manipulative. Even though she was misused and abused as a young teenager by Dr. Schön, the memory of that first awakening, both emotional and sexual, is what drives this Lulu. It is eminently clear in this interpretation that Dr. Schön is the only man Lulu has ever loved. His obsession with her, so much in conflict with the moral standards of the time, becomes the crux of both his and her downfall. Had he listened to his heart instead of only his loins, Tcherniakov seems to tell us, the story might have ended at least semi-happily.

Tcherniakov, along with assistant choreographer Tatiana Baganova, created a chorus of extras, always in man-woman pairings, who were dressed by designer Elena Zaytseva as if they were going to a modern cocktail party; their synchronized, choreographed movements during the interludes often consisted of uninhibited sexual violence, the instigator of which alternates between the male and female of the pair. These extras are not merely set dressing: they behaved either in contrast to or in accordance with the action that is going on, psychologically or otherwise, on the stage front. 

The production, in its entirety, is challenging, fascinating and illuminating. It is also demanding — a long evening requiring concentration until the very end. Although each protagonist, whether major or minor, was given a logical, compelling interpretation, it was the confrontations between Lulu and Dr. Schön that became the musical and emotional highlights of the performance: Tcherniakov raised the temperature onstage to fever pitch. Another triumph of originality was the first scene of Act III, presented in essence as Lulu's nightmare.  Lulu was seated downstage center, with everyone else lined up in frozen postcard position behind her; the other soloists broke out of pose only at his or her individual vocal entrance.  

There is no way of undercasting a performance of Lulu and the Bavarian State Opera outdid itself in giving every role its due. Soprano Marlis Petersen was nothing short of phenomenal in the title role, giving the illusion that the enormously difficult vocal lines were entirely unproblematic, singing the music as if it were second nature to her: she was able to interpret the music rather than fight against it. She looked gorgeous and alluring and her charismatic presence made her the evening's focal point. Quite her equal was Bo Skovhus — an overwhelming Dr. Schön, and later a powerful Jack the Ripper — with his thunderous voice and dominant personality. Daniela Sindram was a full-voiced, sympathetic Countess Geschwitz, Pavlo Hunka (dressed in motorcycle garb,complete with goggles) a fulminant Schigolch and Matthias Klink a superb Alwa. The rest of the excellent singers were cast in multiple roles and all were outstanding. Conductor Kirill Petrenko brought the score to life wonderfully, blending the music's modernity with its late Romantic nature, coaxing the music to soar without ever losing sight of the score's clarity and concision.  One was inexorably drawn into this masterpiece without a moment's trepidation. Petrenko also had both orchestra and stage completely under his control. The Bavarian State Orchestra surged but never at the cost of the soloists. —Jeffrey A. Leipsic

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