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In Review > North America


The Metropolitan Opera

Luxury casting: Susan Graham and Marlis Petersen, Geschwitz and Lulu at the Met
© Johan Elbers

THERE HAS NEVER BEEN an opera score more detailed and more specific about staging than Berg’s Lulu. The rhythms with which a nail is hammered into a wall or an old man wheezes with asthma are notated; characters who are not singing still have a line of vocal score that indicates their stage actions. The Metropolitan Opera’s first production, by John Dexter in 1977, was remarkable in its unusual fidelity to the score. On November 5, a new production by William Kentridge, first seen in Amsterdam last summer, replaced the Dexter production at the Met. The big question was whether Kentridge would direct Lulu or merely decorate it. His Met debut, in 2010, had been with Shostakovich’s romp The Nose, a score that opened up beautifully to Kentridge’s film projections, animations and comic-strip colors. Lulu, almost twice the length of The Nose, and a seriously disturbing opera, requires more. Kentridge’s production, colorful but not a cartoon, sometimes provided it.

Kentridge’s familiar projections ran constantly, even frenetically in the case of the Act II interlude, but he knew that he needed to vary the pace. During Lulu’s odd, intimate first scene with Schigolch, nothing in the projection moved except a suitably voyeuristic blinking eye. Images blew across the scenery as a fresh breeze blew through the orchestra at Lulu’s “O Freiheit” upon her release from prison. And Kentridge showed a sense of humor. He is an artist directing an opera in which two characters are painters and a portrait plays a major role, but there was no single portrait to be seen. Rather, there were dozens of them during the eventual outpouring of the Act III quartet. And Kentridge added a few neat, small directorial touches, most effectively in the uncomfortable interview of Dr. Schön and the Painter. Here Schön, supremely enjoying the upper hand in the power dynamic, got the Painter to do up his cufflinks.

This was also the scene in which conductor Lothar Koenigs first put his own stamp on an opera that had previously been James Levine’s personal chef d’oeuvre in the house. Levine, whose withdrawal from the Kentridge production was announced in October, conducted this passage as a grand, overpowering and unyielding abstract musical argument, but Koenigs offered constantly shifting changes of color. Koenigs was particularly sensitive to the ambiguities in the score—the moment early in Act II when it briefly seems that Lulu and Schön might make a go of it, Lulu’s faked incapacitation when she returns from prison, Geschwitz’s leitmotif. But there was room for one orchestral explosion in each act; the interlude between the second and third scenes of Act I was sustained to the point where it seemed it might break. Stage-to-orchestra balance was brilliantly gauged for someone who had such scant previous experience in the house.

Marlis Petersen’s Lulu is by now a known and magnificent quantity, but it is not a fixed interpretation. Here she was unusually aware of others, shaken into reality by the death of her first husband, thoughtful and understanding when she overheard Schön’s monologue in Act II. Vocally, along with supreme confidence, there were moments of stunning beauty in the difficult role. Her entrance in the theater dressing room broke hearts, and in the final scene, the character pitiful and drained, she sang with ever more sweetness. Vocally, in fact, it was a fine evening all around. Johan Reuter’s Schön was brightly sung with clear focus, the house’s finest since Franz Mazura. Paul Groves sang the Painter’s music as an extension of Brahms. Franz Grundheber’s Schigolch was detailed and elegantly voiced, and also touching as he seized the old tramp’s one moment of purpose when Lulu asks him for a favor. Susan Graham was luxury casting as Geschwitz, a character with little to sing but a strong stage presence. Daniel Brenna had a high-pressure Met debut as Alwa. He took time to find the measure of the house, singing too brashly in Act I and too blandly for much of Act II before finally delivering an admirable Hymn at the end of the act.

Koenigs’s work had the full emotional impact Lulu can offer. If Kentridge’s work didn’t achieve as much of a triumph, it may be because too much of the action in Sabine Theunissen’s sets is too far from the audience. As a director, Kentridge really only engaged deeply with Berg’s music at one moment, when Lulu and Jack the Ripper silently looked at each other, each knowing the end already. And he badly miscalculated the scene of Schön’s murder, with Schön initially pointing the revolver at Lulu for quite some time, something Schön could never bring himself to do, and a complete reversal of Berg and Wedekind’s characters. Perhaps ultimately Kentridge’s work is too self-referential, with the artist’s own hands a constant feature in the projections. But on the other hand, Lulu is the most self-referential opera ever written, and it could be said that Kentridge was paying his own tribute by replying in kind.  —William R. Braun 

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