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New ... Again

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link   All Posts

The most thrilling performance in the Met's season came at its very end, and it was a revival at that. I wasn't fortunate enough to catch Teresa Stratas as Alban Berg's Lulu (she sang it at the Met premiere of the complete version of the work in 1980), but I have seen later revivals of the famed John Dexter production, with Catherine Malfitano and Christine Schäfer. Both had their merits, but neither one approached the brilliance of the recent outing, with Marlis Petersen in the title role. I saw it on May 12, and Petersen was a revelation, as completely satisfying as I had found her disappointing in the Met's Hamlet two months earlier. The entire cast, in fact, seemed unusually in sync with each other, as if they all understood the real point of Lulu: that it's an extended sick joke. But most of the credit for the success of the performance belongs to Fabio Luisi, the Met's recently appointed principal guest conductor. This Lulu was a tantalizing promise of what Luisi may bring to his future work with the Met orchestra. I've never heard a live performance of this opera in which the score's bluesy, subversive wit rose to the surface so consistently. And the audience was keen to what Luisi was up to, laughing out loud at several points, and not just at Lulu's magnificently amoral antics onstage — they seemed to be laughing at the effects served up by the orchestra. This hasn't been the case in past performances I've heard conducted by Met music director James Levine. Although Levine always drew beautiful, transparently detailed work from the players, he never quite seemed to be in on the opera's central joke. Masterful as his touch was, it felt that he conducted the work with a straight-faced sobriety, a certain portentousness — as if the entire opera were to be done in the tone of the chilling final scene. Much of what makes that last scene so powerful is that what comes before it doesn't really prepare us for it — we've had the rug ripped out from under us.

In the 1980s, when I worked on the performing arts staff of the 92nd Street Y, the program's director, Omus Hirshbein, worked overtime bringing a wide range of twentieth-century music to the Y's somewhat hidebound audience. I used to answer many of the letters from subscribers who wrote in angrily protesting that they had to sit through works like Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht or Berg's Chamber Concerto, which they usually derisively characterized as "new music." Berg was near completion of Lulu when he died in 1935, but for me, the Met's recent performance carried the wallop of discovery. This time around, it really did seem, in so many ways, like "new music." spacer 

– Brian Kellow

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