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Marlis Petersen as Lulu [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
05 Jun 2010

Lulu, New York

Alban Berg died in 1935, but his music was generations ahead of his time – as one could not help but conclude during the recent revival of Lulu at the Met whenever the vibraphone played “doorbell” music, reminding us of the intrusion of cell phones into theaters.

Alban Berg: Lulu

Lulu: Marlis Petersen; Countess Geschwitz: Anne Sofie von Otter; Alwa: Gary Lehman; Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper: James Morris; The Painter: Michael Schade; The Acrobat: Bradley Garvin; Schigolch: Gwynne Howell; Wardrobe Mistress/Schoolboy/Page: Ginger Costa-Jackson; The Prince/The Manservant/The Marquis: Graham Clark. Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Fabio Luisi. Performance of May 12.

Above: Marlis Petersen as Lulu

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera


This came home painfully five minutes before the performance ended, at the tense moment when the humiliated Lulu entreats her latest client, a black-bag-toting Englishman named Jack, into her bedroom. Somebody’s watch began to beep and kept on beeping. Happily, the music at this point is pretty loud, depicting what Jack is doing to Lulu just off stage, and Fabio Luisi let it out and drowned the beeping.

Nothing given at the Met this not-very-triumphant year (with the possible exceptions of The Nose, From the House of the Dead and Ariadne auf Naxos) has been of the across-the-board excellence, brilliantly sung, flawlessly acted, sublimely played, appropriately staged, of this Lulu. This fact brings to mind questions: Why does Lulu – seldom a crowd-pleaser (though the house was packed for the performance I attended, all enthusiastic) – merit this level of care from the Met while such more traditional fare as Aida or Turandot or Der Fliegende Holländer or Tosca are allowed to sink or swim, survive on lingering reputation, the staging haphazard, the singing mediocre? Is it because Lulu, being notoriously difficult, gets extra attention? Is it because the Met cannot find anyone capable of singing Aida or Radames or Turandot, but can easily come up with Lulu and Dr. Schön? It’s difficult to believe a Lulu of the caliber of Marlis Petersen is to be found on every street corner of the opera world, and if she has been located and lured to the Met, why has there been hardly a decent Aida in decades? The production is there, and Great Isis knows the audience is there, eager to hear it.

Otter_Lulu.gifAnne Sofie von Otter as Countess Geschwitz

Well, enough about Aida: this was a Lulu to remember. John Dexter’s handsome thirty-year-old Jugendstil production, with its Austro-Hungarian curlicues, its air of Klimt-Schiele decadence, is still handsome enough to satisfy. The direction was largely appropriate, though characters occasionally sing of going out of doors when in fact they are climbing the staircase to an upper floor. Lulu behaved as if on a different wavelength from that of the men – and women – obsessed with her, and that is as it should be: she is their idol, their destroyer, their plaything, their posession. No one ever sees her as human, including Lulu herself, and when she does show signs of humanity, it’s far too late.

In a cast giving exceptional performances across the board, even in such minuscule roles as the pimp who tries to blackmail Lulu into entering a brothel in Cairo in Act III – Graham Clark, sinister and funny, as he was also as Lulu’s butler in Act II – and the pageboy who obligingly changes clothes with Lulu, allowing her to escape the pimp – Ginger Costa-Jackson, who manages the trick of looking and moving like a boy uncomfortably in drag – the star of the evening, besides Marlis Petersen’s Lulu, was Fabio Luisi, recently announced as the Met’s visiting music director, who once again demonstrated that his control, his musicianship, his dramatic flair rank every him every way as worthy as James Levine. This was a taut, elegant, alive performance. There was time to notice such witty details as the concertato in the final scene of Act I – when the various men in Lulu’s life savage each other vocally in an atonal parody of a bel canto sextet, while Lulu, the only treble voice on stage, seems to pay no attention to them.

Petersen, the vocal star of the Met’s Hamlet this spring, wherein she sang the most old-fashioned of suicidal mad scenes in a luscious, gratifying manner, might almost be another singer when she sings Lulu. Mind you, the part could hardly be farther from bel canto Ophélie – it is all Sprechstimme, high-flying taunting, snarling, giggling, dreaming phrases pointed here and there on the scale, all of them produced with dramatic intent. Lulu, the child of nature, is no sensualist like Carmen or Musetta: she likes the physicality of sex. She does not develop a soul, a self, until she becomes desperate in Act III, having lost her money, her husbands, her position, almost her freedom. The transformation in Peteren’s vocal delivery in this act was matched by her movements; her entire figure seemed that of another woman, yearning no longer for sex but for death – the equal and opposite urge, as Freud might have suggested to Berg, his contemporary.

LULU_Act_I_0654.gifA scene from Act I with James Courtney as the Theater Manager, James Morris as Dr. Schön, Marlis Petersen in the title role, Gary Lehman as Alwa, Graham Clark as the Prince, and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Wardrobe Mistress

James Morris seemed on the ropes when he sang Claudius in Hamlet, his voice dry and tending towards wobble. As Dr. Schön, Lulu’s most possessive possessor, he sang with authority and irony. Each syllable was acted, and each sung note had a degree of menace and self-loathing. A very classy act. Anne-Sofie von Otter, whom I have found dull in more conventional parts, sang a most affecting Countess Geschwitz. Gary Lehman was stocky but sympathetic as Alwa Schön. Bradley Garvin brought particular menace not only to his movements but to each phrase of his vigorous baritone as the Acrobat. It was a cast without a flaw, a Lulu to remember forever, the new standard.

John Yohalem

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