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BERG: Lulu

spacer Lear, Litz; Schock, Equiluz, Schöffler, Braun, Knapp; Wiener Symphoniker, Böhm. Production: Schenk. Arthaus Musik 101687, 135 mins., subtitled


Evelyn Lear is mute and immobile in the prologue to Lulu, but in those two minutes she puts her stamp on the character. Carried onstage like a prop — or, as described, "a snake" — this circus Lulu remains still, half-smiling, amiable, blithe and dignified despite the sordid setting and the denigrating words. 

In this Austrian premiere performance, staged by Otto Schenk in 1962, the character's personal magnetism feels unforced, whether she is posing, half-nude, or decked out in belle-époque plumage. Rather than any extravagant gestures, it is Lear's gaze — those big, lustrous eyes — that exerts such fascination and suggests Lulu's contradictions. But then this astute ambiguity yields to another strategy — an apparent attempt to soften the character.

In staging the fatal confrontation with Dr. Schön, Schenk departs from the directions in the score by keeping the revolver out of Lulu's hand until the very last minute and making the shooting an unequivocal act of self-defense. Throughout her solo ("Lulus Lied"), the camera pans back and forth from Schön's frenzied contortions (as he holds the gun) to an immobile, chastened Lulu who ends up pleading almost tearfully with him, showing none of the defiance and cold realism heard in the "Lied."

But neither prison nor directorial bias can prevail over the character's animal spirits. Lear's visual performance richly complements her singing, which is familiar from the famous audio recording of the work, made in Berlin in 1968, also under Karl Böhm. 

Her Salome-type timbre suits the conducting and orchestral palette, which — unlike current Lulu practice — seem steeped in Strauss and Schoenberg. Her smoky soprano is both agile and versatile. She opts for nearly all the high Ds, even when Berg offers an alternative, and she masters the long, bristling phrases in an aggressive legato that can turn bright or acidic. Playfully, Lear caresses "Af-ri-ka" in recalling one of Lulu's exotic suitors and, in her expert German diction, purrs the demure confession to Alwa: "I poisoned your mother." 

As later in his famous Met Ring, Schenk is concrete and representational, almost quaint by current values, but the black-and-white filming and the lighting contrasts aptly borrow from German cinema of Berg's time to suggest decadence. And of course this dark-age Lulu predates Friedrich Cerha's completion of Berg's score, which is now considered definitive. As in all pre-1979 productions, we hear only two acts, followed by a few excerpts from the Lulu Suite to give closure, including the briefest appearance by Jack the Ripper as a handy diabolus ex machina.

Disappointingly, Schenk dispenses with the "silent film" during the Act II interlude that is meant to enact Lulu's arrest and escape from jail. The camera has nothing to show here but the orchestra in the pit.

Brilliant singers in other roles — Rudolf Schock (Alwa), Gisela Litz (Countess Geschwitz) and especially the formidable Paul Schöffler (Dr. Schön) — outperform even the Berlin cast. Böhm's strong pacing and bold colors remain a marvel in live performance. This incomplete Lulu may be a historical relic, but it is one to cherish. spacer


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