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In Review > International

Lulu

VIENNA
Vienna State Opera
12/15/17

In Review Vienna Lulu hdl 318
Agneta Eichenholz, Vienna’s new Lulu
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH/Michael Pöhn

IN MID-DECEMBER, Vienna was offered an all-too-rare opportunity to see the three-act version of Lulu in a musically riveting new production by Willy Decker (seen Dec. 15) that put the focus squarely on the psychological and material vicissitudes of Berg’s complex heroine. Wiener Staatsoper has an ambivalent relationship to Alban Berg, who was born and died in Vienna. Although the Vienna premiere of Wozzeck took place in 1930, five years after the world premiere in Berlin, the Viennese never seem to have developed much of a taste for it, and revivals have been infrequent.

L ulu has fared even worse. Staatsoper first performed Lulu in 1968, three decades after the opera’s world premiere in Zurich. Although Otto Schenk’s production was revived over the next few seasons, it would be another fifteen years before a new Lulu came along—the Vienna premiere of the three-act version, in Friedrich Cerha’s completion, in 1983. When Lulu returned between 2000 and 2005, it was as the two-act torso. To those who remember that production—featuring Anat Efrati and, later, Marlis Petersen in the title role—the Staatsoper’s wintertime premiere of Berg’s full-length masterpiece must have seemed oddly familiar. Call it déja Lulu.

Stage director Decker, best known to American audiences for his “red dress” Traviata at the Met, furnished the Staatsoper with its previous Lulu. Almost two decades later, he’s spruced up that older staging and devised a third act for the Cerha reconstruction, which the Staatsoper has chosen over several more recent completions, including those of Eberhard Kloke and David Robert Coleman. 

Set entirely in an open arena that suggested a circus, Decker’s Lulu is a far cry from either John Dexter’s richly detailed 1977 Met production or William Kentridge’s more recent triumph, a dazzling collage of cutout drawings and film projections. Aside from a few well-chosen props, most of them scarlet, the burden of making the Decker production come to life rested largely with the singers. The silent chorus of leering men in overcoats and fedoras who observed Lulu from bleachers above the arena and René Magritte’s multi-panel painting “L’Évidence éternelle” were effective visual leitmotifs, yet Decker’s skillful direction of his singers was what made this production tick. Their dramatically charged interactions were freighted with the intensity, desperation, lust and menace that make Lulu a psychological rollercoaster.

Leading the cast as Lulu was Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz; her vocally impeccable performance’s elegance in no way detracted from its emotional impact. Her medium-sized voice seemed as lithe and agile as her body as she flitted, often barefoot, across the stage. Lulu is a punishing role, but nothing about Eichenholz’s performance seemed forced or strained as she navigated the part’s myriad challenges. Investing her performance with candor and directness, she refused to present the character as either a little lost girl or a femme fatale. Her fine-grained Lulu was no dope; she was a creature without innocence but with a little guile—a survival artist who even at her most abject clung to her dignity.

Danish baritone Bo Skovhus was a booming, tormented Dr. Schön and a grimly crepuscular Jack the Ripper. Charles Workman, a late replacement for Herbert Lippert, was an anxious yet childish Alwa. His buttery-smooth voice channeled the character’s desperation, although he didn’t quite hit the mark with Alwa’s anxious high notes. Angela Denoke sang the lovesick Geschwitz with both ardor and bitterness, while Jörg Schneider made a suitably pathetic impression as Lulu’s second husband, the Painter. Rounding out the main cast were two of the Staatsoper’s outstanding veteran singers, Franz Grundheber as Schigolch and Wolfgang Bankl as the Animal Trainer and Athlete. 

Ingo Metzmacher and the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper made Berg’s music sound vital and dangerous. Their feverishly detailed and dramatically vivid performance earned them a thunderous ovation from the uncommonly enthusiastic Viennese audience.  —A. J. Goldmann 



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