Monday, December 7, 2015

Alban Berg's Lulu and Modernism

Johan Reuter (as Dr. Schön) and Marlis Petersen (as Lulu) in Alban Berg's Lulu. (Photo: Ken Howard)

Alban Berg wrote his opera Lulu in the late twenties and early thirties, though because he died (in 1935) before he could complete the orchestrations for the third act, only acts one and two were included at its premiere in 1937, in Zurich. Of course it couldn’t have opened in Berg’s native Vienna, because of the Nazi ban on “decadent” art: Berg, a student of Schönberg (already a black mark against him since Schönberg was Jewish), adapted the scandalous fin-de-siècle Frank Wedekind plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, that Pabst had made into his landmark Expressionist silent Pandora’s Box in 1929. And because Berg’s widow blocked all efforts to finish his work, it wasn’t performed in its entirety until after her death, in 1979, when the Paris Opera mounted a celebrated production by Patrice Chéreau with Pierre Boulez conducting and the great Teresa Stratas in the title role. I was lucky enough to see a tape of it and it wasn’t like anything I’d ever encountered: the twelve-tone scale added a jagged, unstable quality to music that still somehow carried the whiff of nineteenth-century Viennese elegance. I hadn’t seen another Lulu until, last week, I caught the new production by the South African artist and director William Kentridge in the Met Live in HD series. Since three and a half decades have intervened, I couldn’t possibly trust my memory of Stratas and Chéreau’s staging well enough to compare the two versions, but I found both utterly thrilling.

Kentridge is a collagist: Lulu, like The Nose, the Shostakovich satirical opera he directed for the Met in 2010, combines outré costume designs (by Greta Goiris) that include some Bread and Puppet-style additions with intricately layered projections (by Catherine Meyburgh) on an immense, versatile set (by Sabine Theunissen). The result of what might most fittingly be called the inspired collision of these three visual media – the other collaborator in these unorthodox stage pictures is the lighting designer, Urs Schönebaum – is somewhere between a dazzling barrage of sensory elements and trompe l’oeil: nothing is what it seems to be, at least not for very long before it morphs into something else. And that’s the key to Kentridge’s depiction of Lulu, the sexual Venus flytrap who draws a variety of hapless men, until, in the end, she herself becomes a victim of Jack the Ripper – on Christmas Eve, no less. Louise Brooks, who played Lulu for Pabst, once wrote that the character eventually gets the Christmas gift she’s always dreamed of: death at the hands of a sexual maniac. Brooks played Lulu as an unconscious siren, as instinctually and guilelessly narcissistic as a child; others have rendered her as manipulator or the manipulated. In Kentridge’s Lulu, the German coloratura soprano Marlis Petersen plays her as a chameleon who swings through a series of images, some but by no means all of them in response to what the men around her what her to be: seductress, pragmatist, adulteress, murderess (she shoots one of her husbands, Schön, in the back), prisoner, patient (she contracts cholera when she’s sent to jail), pet, whore, romantic. When she sits for her portrait in the first act, for example, the Painter (Paul Groves) has her pose in a cylindrical mask and stylized sex parts that he sticks on her like paper cut-outs, and when he declares his love for her, she sashays like a sex doll brought to life, perhaps a porno version of Olympia from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman. Petersen – like Stratas, a magnificent singer who is also a brilliant actress – uses her sculpted body and especially those long model’s legs to make startling physical alterations, while her articulation of the music is simultaneously prismatic and robust. In the HD transmission, the singer Deborah Voigt interviewed Petersen’s co-star Susan Graham (she plays the Countess Geschwitz, who’s so enamored of Lulu that she trades places with her in the prison hospital so she can escape to Paris). Graham, who was singing the role for the first time, reported that she was continually amazed by Petersen’s ability to sing the twelve-tone music as if it were Mozart, and when you hear her you know exactly what Graham means.

Daniel Brenna (as Alwa) and Marlis Petersen in Lulu. (Photo: Ken Howard)

Kentridge has removed the Freud from this version of Lulu, but in every other way his production is a throwback to that incomparable modernist period between the teens and the thirties, when all the anti-realist movements – expressionism, surrealism, constructivism, symbolism, cubism, futurism and dada – seemed to converge on the arts at roughly the same time. You can see slivers of all of them here, especially expressionism and cubism. Kentridge pays homage to Pandora’s Box and Lang’s Metropolis and Murnau’s Nosferatu, sometimes with his tongue in his cheek (a semi-robotic butler, played by Andrea Fabi, who crosses the stage during set changes is like a parody of a vampire); he even throws in a silent movie in act two to convey the offstage part of the narrative, Lulu’s trial and sentencing. The collage effects recall Picasso and the other cubists, and it’s their aesthetic that seems to be evoked in the presentation of the heroine as continually changing, as if we were seeing her through a constantly shifting perspective.

Graham may have had trepidations about her first time in a Berg opera, but she sings Geschwitz superbly and plays this woman, who knows she’s sacrificing herself for a woman who doesn’t reciprocate her affection, with a touching romantic desperation. My only problem with her performance is that she doesn’t have enough physical freedom: when she kisses Lulu on the lips, she looks restrained, which is all the more striking in contrast to Petersen’s physical bravado. The cast, which includes Johan Reuter as both Schön and Jack the Ripper, Daniel Brenna as Schön’s son Alwa, and Franz Grundheber as the perverted old Schigolch (who is probably Lulu’s father as well as her pander and sometime lover), is remarkable. The only member of the ensemble whose acting seems showy and unconvincing is Martin Winkler as the Acrobat. Lothar Koenigs conducts the orchestra. The opera, like the Wedekind plays and the Pabst film, just knocks you out; is there any other material from the modern era that has generated three separate masterpieces?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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