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Wolfgang Schöne (Dr. Schön) and Marlis Petersen (title role) in Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Lulu, directed by Paul Curran for the 2008-09 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
22 Dec 2008

Berg’s Lulu at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In its new production this fall season of Alban Berg’s Lulu, Lyric Opera of Chicago has achieved a near ideal synthesis of music and drama.

Alban Berg: Lulu

Lulu: Marlis Petersen; Dr. Schön/Jack The Ripper: Wolfgang Schöne; Countess Geschwitz: Jill Grove; Alwa: William Burden; Schigolch: Thomas Hammons; Painter/Black Man: Scott Ramsay; Animal Trainer/Athlete: Jan Buchwald; Prince/Marquis/Manservant: Rodell Rosel; Wardrobe Mistress/Schoolboy/Groom: Buffy Baggott. Lyric Opera of Chicago. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis. Director: Paul Curran. Designer: Kevin Knight.

Above: Wolfgang Schöne (Dr. Schön) and Marlis Petersen (title role) in Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Lulu, directed by Paul Curran for the 2008-09 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago


The psychological complexities linked to the depiction not only of the title character but also of her numerous admirers and associates could pose a daunting task to any company undertaking a new production of Berg’s final operatic work. Lyric Opera has met these challenges with respect both to Berg’s score and to his intentions for staging the opera as dramatic event. Under the musical direction of Sir Andrew Davis the complex score moves from passages of suspense and dramatic intensity to segments of lyrical beauty, the transitions forming a seamless bridge to both action and introspection. The new production commissioned by Lyric Opera is staged by Paul Curran who had scored a noteworthy triumph here with his production of Die Frau ohne Schatten in the previous season. In Curran’s vision for Lulu, the stage highlights traditional interior settings while using innovative lighting and projections in order to suggest developments in the portrayal of individual characters.

The figure of Lulu, as hinted in the prologue by the animal trainer and his menagerie, will represent female aspects of temptation, here taking on the simulation of a snake. A transition from the representative or symbolic tone of the prologue to a detailed realism of the first act demonstrates the creative approach of this production in combining the abstract and the concrete. Lulu, as sung by Marlis Petersen, is depicted in the opening scene of Act I surrounded by male figures who will play increasingly significant roles in her various transformations. Here Lulu sits for her portrait while listening to the self-motivated discussions initiated by Dr. Schön, a leading journalist, and by his son Alwa, who composes for musical theater.

In this first scene the primary male roles are not only introduced but also given skillful characterization by the singers in this production. As Dr. Schön the bass-baritone Wolfgang Schöne communicates the two-fold personality of a callous businessman whose determined authority nevertheless suffers from glints of weakness. Schöne has performed this role in other significant productions of Lulu, such familiarity surely elucidating the depth of his interpretation and his ability to interact on varying levels with individual characters. The role of Alwa is invested here by William Burden with a revelatory performance: as one of the characters — along with Lulu — who survives from the opening until nearly the end of the work, Alwa must remain vocally incisive and dramatically convincing in a variety of situations. Burden’s committed performance meets fully the taxing vocal demands of the tenor role. At the same time, while depicting the yearning musical writer who eventually succumbs to Lulu’s attractions, Burden’s dramatic skills add further to a memorable characterization. But it is the painter working on Lulu’s portrait who achieves amorous success with the title character in this initial scene. In the first of several roles that he covers in this production Scott Ramsay as the painter presses Lulu in a physically ardent, if vocally understated, plea for her affections. Shortly after she concedes to these advances, Lulu’s husband enters. As soon as the Medizinalrat comes upon this scene of marital disloyalty, he collapses dead of heart failure. Lulu’s reaction to the shock and sudden death of her husband is a gauge of the complexity of emotions that will continue to infuse Marlis Petersen’s portrayal throughout the production. A mix of curiosity and consternation indicates a character that is far from one-dimensional. The figure of Lulu — inhabited and communicated so effectively by Ms. Petersen — revels in adventure, suggesting at once a naïve lack of guile yet also a measure of complicity in the deeds and decisions to which she draws her suitors.

Marlis Petersen (title role) and Wolfgang Schöne (Dr. Schön) in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Lulu, directed by Paul Curran for the 2008-09 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

The musical and visual interlude between the first and following scenes establishes a technique which Curran uses to great effect in subsequent dramatic transitions throughout the production. During Berg’s orchestral interlude projections of images onto a screen suggest, by their change of shape or color, the progression of emotional, physical, or intellectual change in both individual characters and the constellation of the same. At the start of the second scene Lulu, who has inherited a respectable sum as widow, is now married to the painter. Countless sketches examples of her portrait adorn the walls. The figure of Schigolch — a character never fully identified from Lulu’s past — is introduced near the start of the scene when he knocks at the door of Lulu’s home and is presented with money by the heroine. In much the same way as the character Alwa, Schigolch will resurface periodically until near the close of the opera. In both solo and ensemble work bass-baritone Thomas Hammons as Schigolch proved to be an effective foil to Lulu’s carefree attitude. In their interactions a mutual enhancement could readily be perceived. Indeed Ms. Petersen’s impassioned singing of the repetition on “blind” in this scene with Schigolch underlined her dramatic involvement with exquisite controlled agility in the upper register of her voice. By the close of the scene Dr. Schön has revealed to the painter his ongoing liaison with Lulu, in this production a psychologically riveting exchange, the realization of which drives the artist to take his own life in a separate, enclosed room. The final scene of Act I reveals Lulu as a theatrical dancer thanks to the patronage of her former suitor Dr. Schön. Lullu’s effect on Schön and his impending marriage to another illustrates how Berg intends the lead character not only as a display of herself but also as a means to bare the true character of others. Ms. Petersen is especially effective here in showing Lulu’s vulnerability as well as her strength, both of which cause reactions among those surrounding her. Dr. Schön—- while referring to Lulu’s indestructibility — is now indeed persuaded to compose a written renunciation of his engagement.

The second act highlights Lulu’s marriage to Dr. Schön, his death by her hand, Lulu’s incarceration and time also spent in a medical ward, and finally her liberation and physical union with Alwa, the son of her dead husband. Throughout this act Lulu’s devoted female companion, the Countess Geschwitz, demonstrates her willingness to compromise and even to sacrifice her own well-being in order to save Lulu. As the Countess, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove sings with an appropriate and convincing dramatic urgency, lending her character’s personality aspects already encountered in the roles of Dr. Schön and Alwa. The interlude between scenes one and two takes place after Lulu has shot her husband and before the plans to release her from prison are realized. Berg’s musical interlude serves as the accompaniment to a black-and-white film of the arrest, trial, and subsequent confinement of Lulu. This extension of the projected images used between other scenes is a dramatic masterstroke, in which the actual singers are filmed and displayed in the cinematic style of the period.

In Act III of the opera the two scenes take place in Paris and London respectively. Lulu’s successful escape has led to reunion with the Countess Geschwitz and Alwa, although the search for Lulu as criminal has not abated. In their Parisian home Lulu and Alwa are surrounded by characters of questionable reputation and less than stable profiles in matters of finance. Lulu’s narrow escape from this atmosphere, as their investments collapse, brings her to London and the true realm of the underworld. She spends her time as a prostitute, living together with Schigolch, Alwa, and the Countess Geschwitz — before dying at the hands of Jack the Ripper, her final client. The last words belong here to the Countess Geschwitz, who has fallen as the second victim to Jack, before he leaves the London flat. With extraordinary pathos Ms. Grove intones, in her dying words, an unwavering feeling of the Countess’s devotion and love for the cherished Lulu.

Salvatore Calomino

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