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BERG: Lulu

DVD Button Petersen, Graham; Brenna, Groves, Reuter, Winkler, Grundheber; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Koenigs. Production: Kentridge. Nonesuch 556120-2 (DVD and Blu-ray), 182 mins., subtitled

Recordings Lulu Cover 517
Critics Choice Button 1015

RORSCHACH INKBLOTS figure among the many projections that artist and director William Kentridge throws on the Met stage in his ingenious 2015 production of Lulu. They’re appropriate to a work whose central figure is an inkblot herself—an apparition whose identity each onlooker defines for himself. Even her name stays in flux. Is Lulu a monster or victim? The master of her own fate or the passive vessel of the world’s desires? The images tell us that the truth depends on how we read what we’re seeing.

Quite a few of Kentridge’s projections are fragments of the Painter’s portrait of Lulu. In the 1977 John Dexter–Jocelyn Herbert production that the Met used for more than three decades, the painting was a demure art nouveau Pierrot. That precedent left me unprepared for Kentridge’s starkly sexual treatment of the portrait, focusing on Lulu’s breasts and vagina. The body parts become totems dominating the first half of the opera, reminding us that the heroine’s allure is rooted in the mystery of sex itself. The erotic imagery subsides as Lulu’s sexual magnetism diminishes, but we’re already well aware of what her admirers seek. 

When the productionhad its premiere at the Met, many observers complained about its busy-ness. They had a point. The projected images fly by in a constant flurry—shifting and fragmented, layered one atop the other, each lasting only seconds before it flies off like a scrap of newspaper on a windy day. Meanwhile, two dancers—a double for Lulu and a formally dressed manservant—haunt the stage throughout, offering mute commentary on the proceedings. On video, Kentridge’s Lulu is just about as agitated as an opera staging can be.

But the restless visual treatment conveys the ambiguity of Lulu herself: it’s as if her identity were continually morphing. There’s also an intense musical logic behind Kentridge’s approach. Berg’s music is every bit as elaborate as Kentridge’s imagery, the dissonant overlapping layers of sound like shards of fragmented Brahmsian Romanticism. The kaleidoscopic production conveys the illusion that images and music emanate from the same source. 

The discs capture the work of a brilliant cast of singers, unstinting in their commitment to Kentridge’s conception. At the center, of course, is Marlis Petersen as Lulu. The German soprano, who over the previous eighteen years had thoroughly established her hegemony in the role, announced that she would retire it after this Met run. The decision may have been melancholic, but it was definitely wise; this was the right time for Petersen to bid Lulu goodbye. The video’s close-ups reveal a striking middle-aged woman, better suited in her looks to the world-weary courtesan of the opera’s final scenes than to the amoral sprite of its first half. But Petersen tears into this valediction in grand style, giving a virtuoso performance both in her fearless realization of Berg’s high-flying vocal lines and in her high-octane execution of Kentridge’s athletic staging. She is, in a word, riveting.

She has a worthy vis-à-vis in Johan Reuter, virile in voice and manner, making unerring musical sense of Doctor Schön’s jagged vocal lines. Reuter and Petersen turn the conflict between Schön and Lulu into a true battle of the sexes. Daniel Brenna, as Alwa, is costumed to look like an overgrown Lord Fauntleroy—fitting for a man who never quite emerges from his father’s shadow. His tenor betrays traces of strain toward the end of the brutal assignment, but otherwise his singing is large-scaled and brightly projected. Susan Graham is a marvelous Geschwitz: she gives the countess dignity and makes the lament in the closing scene a lyrical high point. The Animal Tamer/Athlete is Martin Winkler, comic and menacing; the Painter is Paul Groves, ardent and pitiable. Franz Grundheber, once a notable Schön, offers in his Schigolch a textbook demonstration of the use of voice and gesture to create character: you can practically smell the old man. 

The entire cast’s mastery of Berg’s idiom makes Lulu sound no longer like “modern music,” just music. Conductor Lothar Koenigs deserves credit. His reading may not be as lushly romantic as James Levine’s celebrated account (the recessed sound of the orchestra, as captured by the video’s engineers, may bear some responsibility), but it’s extraordinarily lucid: each note takes its exact place in the intricate web of sound. This Lulu finds the Met’s forces working at the peak of their considerable powers, in a production of true theatrical impact. —Fred Cohn 

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