Berg’s Lulu Revived at the Met after an Eight-Year Absence

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Marlis Petersen as Lulu in Berg's Opera. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Marlis Petersen as Lulu in Berg's Opera. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

music and libretto (1935) by Alban Berg
based on two plays by Franz Wedekind: The Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box

Metropolitan Opera, May 8, 2010
directed by John Dexter
conducted by Fabio Luisi

Lulu – Marlis Petersen
Dr. Schön – James Morris
Jack the Ripper – James Morris
Countess Geschwitz – Anne Sofie von Otter
Alwa – Gary Lehman
Schigolch – Gwynne Howell
Animal Tamer – Bradley Garvin
Acrobat – Bradley Garvin
Painter – Michael Schade
African Prince – Michael Schade
Physician – Mitchell Sendrowitz
Professor – Mitchell Sendrowitz
Prince – Graham Clark
Manservant – Graham Clark
Marquis – Graham Clark
Dresser – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Schoolboy – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Page – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Theater Manager – James Courtney
Banker – James Courtney
Journalist – Joshua Benaim
Servant – LeRoy Lehr
Designer – Edyta Kulczak
Girl – Angela Mannino
Mother – Jane Shaulis
Policeman – Frank Colardo
Clown – Tom Mulvaney

Lulu is an enigma. It is one of the greatest operas of the 20th century. Those two observations are not as unrelated as they might appear. The truth of opera is in its musically expressed emotions; the literal stories are inherently ambiguous, open scripts available to the personalities of singers and directors for interpretation. In opera, emotional conditions are their own reasons for being; causes and explanations take second place. As a result, the ‘meanings’ of operatic plots and characters can be endlessly redefined. Lulu is a particularly active site of contention, pulling into its powerful orbit many of the aesthetic, political, and social controversies that have characterized its time and our own. The emotions embodied in Berg’s extraordinary score rock us back on our heels and at the same time ask us to examine critically ourselves and our responses, ultimately our own identities. In a way that seems almost unfathomable, Berg brings together the antinomial theatrical aesthetics of Wagner and Brecht, and leaves them to fight it out once the final curtain goes down.

No production can reveal all facets of such a work; the director needs to take a stand, to limit the field of interpretation, to steer the audience in certain directions. In doing so, it is to be hoped that the production helps the audience to hear the score fully, to notice its musical dramaturgy. Berg was finicky in his concern for this: he described the sets in detail, precisely notated the rhythms of stage movements, and composed musical responses to almost every detail of activity in his luxuriously complex score. John Dexter’s highly serviceable, thirty-year-old production that was revived this spring at the Met was laudably faithful to the composer’s demands, with one big exception (more about that later). Jocelyn Herbert’s set and costumes were of the period of the Wedekind plays on which the opera is based, as required by Berg. The luxurious fin-de-siècle Viennese interiors with draperies, fire-screens, upholstered chairs and rugs, smoking jackets, etc, the entire bourgeois apparatus of sensual ease and conspicuous consumption, were fully on display, and played their important role in the stage action. There was no attempt made to modernize the representation through expressionist distortion (as is often found in productions of Wozzeck) or modernist abstraction (as in the excellent DVD from Glyndebourne).

The result was not only a faithful visual rendering of the score, but a lightening of the mood, particularly in the first half. The atmosphere of drawing-room comedy encouraged the audience to laugh at the incongruous or even monstrous ways that the characters responded to each other. Paradoxically, the more realistic the set, the more the characters’ behavior assumed an incongruous quality. This was abetted by Marlis Petersen’s highly accomplished realization of the title role. The body-language of her tall, slender and elegant frame corresponded perfectly to her musical lines, including some full-body shakes at the moments of Lulu’s freakishly high coloratura outbursts, making palpable the power she was exerting over those around her. That along with the transparently lustful and selfish behavior of the men around her and the sudden violent deaths of two husbands in the first two scenes maintained the atmosphere of slapstick and cartoon, climaxing in the first scene of the second act in which various of Lulu’s admirers are sequestered, hidden all over the set, only to be discovered by Dr. Schön moments before he becomes the third dead husband.

James Morris’s stuffy portrayal of Dr. Schön, the powerful rich white male who views those around him as ornaments to his own importance, was suitably pompous, irritable, and paradoxically incapable of controlling his own destiny, an ironic descendent of another of Morris’s well-known portrayals, Wotan. Berg designed his opera around the two Wedekind dramas by forming the libretto into two symmetrical halves. One way that Berg dramatized the symmetry was to have three of the male singers take on double roles, one for each half. Thus Dr. Schön returns at the end as Jack the Ripper, who murders Lulu, enacting a strange form of revenge. Morris effectively gave both of his roles the same inflexible, peremptory characterization.

Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Anne-Sophie von Otter as the Countess Geschwitz in Berg's Opera. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitain Opera.

Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Anne-Sophie von Otter as the Countess Geschwitz in Berg's Opera. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitain Opera.

All the other members of the cast displayed easy command over the grueling vocal and musical demands of this score. The most striking was Anne Sophie von Otter’s Countess Geschwitz, another of Lulu’s would-be lovers who sacrifices all and destroys herself on behalf of her idol. In previous productions, this character has been portrayed with a hint of the grotesque, as if a lesbian were another kind of creature in the menagerie that is conjured up by the Animal Tamer in the Prologue. But von Otter’s performance contained no trace of homophobia; she was an elegant and sympathetic figure, as I believe Berg meant her to be, and she is of crucial importance as the only character who is uncompromised by the desire to dominate the one she loves. If there is anything grotesque about her, it is the lengths she will go toward sacrificing herself; and in this portrayal, our sympathies were with her. It was refreshing to see that Lulu and the Countess were physically similar, rendering plausible their exchange of clothing as part of the plot to get Lulu out of prison. This situation is an echo of other clothing exchanges in opera, notably that of Don Giovanni and Leporello, which works best if the two characters are similar in size and shape, something not always provided for by the casting.

The character of Alwa has some clues to Berg’s own position within the story, for Alwa is in many ways Berg himself. He is a composer, and when contemplating Lulu’s story, says “That girl and her lovers, they would make a most daring theme for my next work“, at which point we hear the opening bars of “Wozzeck.” But that does not mean that Alwa is sympathetic; in fact, it is a rather scathing self-portrait in which the composer gives way to a powerful sense of lust which destroys his life and dishonors both of his parents (Berg fathered an illegitimate child at age 17 and had affairs while married). His solo at the end of Act Two is a parody of the way artists exploit their “real” emotions as raw material for their works: Alwa feverishly runs his hands all over Lulu and describes the music each part of her body would generate. As staged at the Met, he ended up with his head caught awkwardly between her two bare legs, cutting an appropriately farcical picture. In tenor Gary Lehman, we saw Alwa as a rather conventional figure whose aesthetic sensibilities provide entrée to the erotic force that takes over his life. His bourgeois conventionality is confirmed by his enthusiastic participation in the marvelous gambling/investing scene in the beginning of Act Three. Here, the unseemly spectacle/disaster of capitalist greed was exposed and reflected back to the audience by means of a giant mirror at the rear of the set in which the patrons in the best seats of the house could see themselves placed onstage with the desperate stock speculators and recreational gamblers, Alwa among them. At the collapse of the stock enterprise, the line “Where has all the money gone?” drew a particularly knowing laugh from the audience.

It is a measure of Berg’s (and Wedekind’s) success that the large cast of characters leaves so many strong impressions of personality, especially when they are well portrayed. For me, the character of Schigolch, as sung by bass Gwynne Howell, was particularly compelling, probably because of the number of paradoxical traits he embodies, and the mysteriously pervasive presence he has been in Lulu’s life. Schigolch at first seems to be an old bum who stops in to see Lulu for a handout. They clearly have a history; he is the only character to call her “Lulu“, which she acknowledges as her real name. The other men appropriate her identity by choosing names for her, including “Mignon“, Dr. Schön’s appellation which relates to his ‘adopting’ her as a pre-teen whom he ‘found’ on the street selling flowers. Like her namesake in Goethe, this young girl was exerting an unusual attraction over men and had some unnamed early sexual experiences. Schigolch behaves in a fatherly or protective way, but we come to realize that he also has had a sexual relationship with her in the past. (The painter thinks that her name is “Nelly” and renames her “Eva” in his deluded attempt to cast her as an innocent.) It has been noticed that the character of Schigolch seems to have semi-mythic connections; his motive is low-pitched and chromatic, which traditionally evokes the image of a serpent. In the prologue, the Animal Tamer had described Lulu as “our human snake; God created her for evil and for havoc, To snare us and seduce us, to infect us / And destroy us, never leaving finger prints.”

Schigolch seems to take on the role of this God, facilitating each step of Lulu’s up-and-down journey with a weird mixture of solicitude, indifference, and exploitation. He is the one who informs the group of admirers (all of whom want to marry her!) that she never had a father, to which she replies “Yes, that’s true, I am a miracle.” These clues, along with her name, point toward Lulu as an avatar of the shadowy figure of Lilith, the first wife of Adam. The mythical resonances of this character, the multiple roles that others play, the allegorical prologue, all are somewhat reminiscent of “Finnegan’s Wake“, with its quotidian here-and-now events echoing through the corridors of time to various mythic pasts. It is only through the enigmatic quality, the partial illegibility of events, that these other dimensions are open to us. And this is a quality that Berg himself intensified many times over with his multi-layered score.

In life and in music, Berg loved secrets, riddles, and puzzles. He left clues about his love life all over his music but it took more than forty years after his death for scholars to decode them. Lulu herself is a puzzle. Most of the critical contentiousness swirling around this opera center on the question of who she really is, and how Berg felt about her. Even the history of the opera itself fueled controversy; Berg left it incomplete, with parts (not all) of the third act unorchestrated. After initially seeking help (unsuccessfully) to complete it posthumously, Berg’s widow Helene reversed herself and declared the task undoable, locking it away and refusing to let anyone see it. (In 1969 she wrote in her will “…no one [is] allowed to examine the manuscript of Act III of Lulu nor is anyone to be allowed to study the photocopy in the possession of Universal Edition.”) Only after her death could its scoring be finished, by Friedrich Cerha. The final product is seamless with the rest of the opera.

The only dissenting voice of consequence toward the completion of the opera was Robin Holloway, who found the third act disturbing in the distance between the apparent emotions being expressed and the actual events portrayed. Perhaps that response was based on knowing the opera in its two-act form long enough to think of it as in some way already complete. But what was missing was the musical portrait of a long deterioration.

When I saw the two-act version in a production brought by the Hamburg opera to New York in 1967 as part of the opening year of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, the story of the third act was narrated with painted slides while the extant orchestrated section of the music was performed, taken from the Lulu Symphony which Berg had extracted from the opera before finishing it. Act III portrays the downfall of Lulu as the reversal of the events of Act I, in which Lulu rises to the position of the wife of Dr. Schön. Actually, the downfall begins at the moment (end of Act II, scene 1) when Lulu shoots and kills Dr. Schön. The interlude between that and the next scene not only represents the transition from the first to the second of Wedekind’s two plays, it also musically narrates Lulu’s imprisonment and subsequent escape through the actions of Countess Geschwitz.

The music of this interlude is in forward-and-backward (palindromic) form, correlated to a very detailed scenario of incarceration and escape. Here is where a disappointment of the present production lay: Berg called for a three minute silent film to be shown during this music, but at the Met, we simply sat looking at the red-and-white motley pattern of the curtain rather than a film. This was probably motivated by practical considerations—a special film would need to be made using members of the very cast that was performing, and considering that this was a run of only three performances, the time and expense of such an undertaking must have been deemed impractical. Some (notably Steve Smith in the New York Times) felt that the music was explicit enough for the film to be unnecessary, but the Glyndebourne DVD includes such a film, and it is incredibly effective in enhancing the way the music enacts the speeding up of time, in expressing the suffering that both Lulu and the Countess experience followed by Lulu’s return to freedom, and in adding another semi-mythic layer to the signification of the opera, since movie-watching places the performers and audience alike into new roles: Lulu as movie star! We as the adoring fans! (Where else would you find our modern Lulus but at the movies?) The filmic interruption also enhances the sense that significant time has passed in that compressed three minutes.

What is so disturbing about Act III is actually characteristic of the whole opera, but it emerges gradually over the course of the work, registering most clearly toward the end. We may not notice it during the farcical, cartoonish or shockingly absurd moments, but it builds up over time: an underlying sense of horror at the predatory and self-aggrandizing behavior of the characters combined with lush, gorgeous, soaringly romantic music. This has generated conflicting explanations and commentaries.

But first, a word needs to be said about Berg’s musical language, which is much more fully described in two books devoted to the opera, by Douglas Jarman (Jarman, D., Alban Berg, Lulu, Cambridge, England, 1991) and by George Perle (Perle, G. The operas of Alban Berg. II: Lulu, Berkeley, 1985). Berg uses a number of interrelated 12-tone rows from which emanate a complex family of leitmotivs which maintain a running commentary on the action throughout the opera. But as anyone familiar with Berg’s later music knows, he has a way of sounding tonal despite his use of the rows. This is because Berg is thinking on several different layers of musical style simultaneously, one of which is the late-romantic, chromatically extended tonality with which he started his composing career, as found in his Piano Sonata, op. 1, or in the interlude before the final scene of Wozzeck which had its origin in an unpublished piano piece Berg composed while still a student. This “Mahleresque” style is programmed into the row material so that there can be stretches of music that feel ripely tonal, and as a result, emotionally familiar (the adjectives used are often “ardent” or “soaring”). Actually, the programming of the row and the use of multiple rows permit the crafting of a wide range of highly individualized motivic material which is at least subconsciously recognizable: the “picture motive” of built-up harmonic fourths is unmistakeable, as are the Acrobat’s piano clusters of black keys alternating with white keys (still connected to the row material!) illustrating his brutality. All this flows so naturally that the listener is never distracted by the formidable technical apparatus just below the surface of the music.

Many commentators believe that in the passages of hyper-romantic music, Berg is portraying the emergence of Lulu’s true inner self (as in “Lulu’s Song”). But in an essay entitled “Lulu’s Feminine Performance“, (Lochhead, J. 1997, “Lulu’s feminine performance”, in The Cambridge Companion to Berg, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press) Judy Lochhead plausibly proposes that Lulu’s “soaring” or “rapturous” music is no more a privileged view of Lulu’s unmediated interiority than any other music in the opera; it is, rather, a conscious performance of (sometimes exaggerated) feminine behavior designed to effect the other characters (rather than one directly aimed at the audience). It represents Lulu’s attempt to assert agency in surroundings that have taught her that her only power lies in the ability to manipulate others, indeed, that her survival depends upon it. As audience we are tempted to project our own fantasies about the “star” who has super-erotic power, but the contradictions and horrors of this story ought to make us cautious about indulging those fantasies. In fact, we are warned several times, first, when the Animal Tamer concludes his prologue by naming us, the audience, as the most fierce animal of all between whose jaws he is placing his head; and second, when the off-stage applause for Lulu’s dancing act is described by Alwa as sounding like zoo animals at feeding time. It is we, the opera audience, who are being thus described, beasts like those onstage, and we feed on romantic or erotic illusions fueled by exploitation.

As in Wozzeck and the Violin Concerto, Berg’s music contains allusions to various popular styles, including a bourgeois gavotte (newly popular in late 19th century Vienna) for Schön’s aspirations to respectable marriage, an English waltz for Lulu’s stage dancing, ragtime, a tango, a “Procurer’s Song” that Wedekind himself composed for the play, set into the opera by Berg, and English barrel-organ music for the final scene in the London slums. All these are indicated through a tonally distorting lens that removes the “culinary” (in the Brechtian sense) or entertainment value that such references provide in earlier operas. The flow of musical styles, motivic references, and musical indicators of stage action proceeds seamlessly and often with breath-taking speed, but if you focus on dialogue and stage action, the orchestral score almost ceases to receive separate attention, so effectively is it in fulfilling its narrative role. The ensembles are stunning in their dense complexity but that translates immediately into dramatic tension that can be almost unbearable without losing clarity. The use of voice is similarly varied, from speaking through Sprechstimme (varieties of half-spoken, half-sung delivery) and recitative to full-blown lyrical singing; the transitions are again so seamless that each form of enunciation seems a natural part of the dramatic moment.

All this was conveyed with apparent ease and natural flow by Fabio Luisi, who had stepped in only weeks before to take over for the ailing James Levine, for whom this production had been originally designed. Luisi demonstrated thorough familiarity with the score, maintaining the almost breakneck pacing of events while benefitting from the superbly rich, balanced, rhythmically alert playing of the Met orchestra. The audience, which remained attentively absorbed throughout (no walkouts for this German expressionist music) rewarded the orchestra with a vigorous ovation. But the end was not the usual paroxysm of operatic star worship that characterizes the lusty cries of “Bravo“, the bows of divas, and the throwing of flowers. There was too much to ponder, to remember, and to process; the story was not truly over. Issues of meaning and intention must be pondered by each listener, and the layered richness of the score must be further plumbed. It is to be hoped that the Metropolitan will not wait long to bring this work back to its stage; more than some other frequently heard repertory works, there is a need for audiences to have repeated access to Lulu.

Another Lulu portrayal that should be seen is the classic German expressionist film, Pandora’s Box by G. W. Pabst (Criterion Collection) Filmed in 1928, it stars Louise Brooks as Lulu in a portrayal that supplements rather than contradicts the operatic version. Brooks is amazing in the role, a kind of cheerful Garbo who seduces the audience with her unique demeanor as her operatic counterpart does with her hyperactive vocalizing. It is fascinating as well to compare Pabst’s characterizations of Schön, Alwa, the Countess, Schigolch, and the Acrobat with those in the opera. The film will be shown as part of the Bard College Summerscape film series devoted to the great German director, and connected to the main focus of the Retrospective Festival, Alban Berg.

About the author

Larry Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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