Total Pageviews

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lulu, the Modern Art Exhibit

Pre-curtain tableau, snapped by me

What does it say when your feeling at the end of a four hour evening at the opera is simply exhaustion? Not boredom, because Alban Berg's Lulu is one of the most compelling storylines ever set to opera. Not disdain, because everything put onstage was thoughtful and intelligent. Just exhaustion, like, okay, it's over, I want to go home.


The production by William Kentridge was certainly visually striking. Kentridge's concept of the opera seems to be that Lulu is the ultimate tabloid thriller. It's an intelligent idea, as Lulu's longtime protector Dr. Schön is a newspaper publisher, and it's unclear whether he ever views Lulu as more than tabloid fodder. A large portion of the stage was always a projection of various images  -- of newspaper headlines, silhouettes of Lulu, ink sketches of the various men in Lulu's life. This was very useful during the scene changes and also the famous orchestral interlude in Act Two after Lulu murders her third husband Dr. Schön. Various headlines blared as Lulu was arrested, imprisoned, and taken ill with cholera. The constant stream of Lulu images also made a huge plot point (Lulu's portrait) not just a static object but a constantly changing image.

Kentridge has real talent as an artist -- for once the projections didn't look like a powerpoint presentation, but an intelligent visual conception of a very complicated opera. In fact, I would love to see an art exhibit based on his Lulu sketches.

And therein lies the problem with the production. Kentridge is a very, very talented artist. Everything about the production resembled a trendy downtown art exhibit. Even the two mimes that were onstage all night -- one a woman who spent the whole evening spreading herself over a grand piano, the other a hunchbacked man who occasionally pushed a cart but more often pushed panels open to signal a scene change -- wouldn't have looked out of place at such an exhibit.

Photo by Ken Howard. See how the stage is cut in half?

Kentridge's actual direction of the opera, however, was considerably more mundane and didn't really capture the complexity and richness of Berg's score or Frank Wedekind's storyline (Berg based the libretto off two of Wedekind's plays). The mimes for instance eventually became nuisances -- at the most intense, dramatic moments of the opera, their presence almost seemed to undercut Berg's opera. His overuse of the panels for projections meant he always cut the stage in half -- in Act One all the action took place on stage right, Act Two on stage left, Act Three started off using the whole stage but then ended on a tiny corner stage left. The large cast was left to fend for themselves in personregie that was decent, but not spectacular. In contrast to the projections, which are big and splashy, the direction emphasized the banality of evil. All of Lulu's lovers are complete tools. Lulu herself is played as entirely amoral -- her murders seem done more out of boredom than anything else. Maybe it didn't help that a paper breast and vagina were occasionally taped to her clothes and she wore a paper bag over her head.

Lulu with the bag over her head, photo by Ken Howard

Marlis Petersen has said she's retiring Lulu after this run. Petersen still has the physique du jour for the role -- in the picture below note the toned legs and upper body even when she's wearing short shorts and a bra. I respect her commitment to this very difficult role. It seems really churlish to say this but her interpretation and vocal performance just weren't to my taste. Her voice is now rather opaque and colorless, especially in the upper-middle registers, and her coloratura approximate. Her top sounds white and strained. The total lack of vocal warmth took away from the character's supposed sensuality. From an interpretive angle her conception of the role is very cold, very cynical. Of course you could argue that a character that leaves dead bodies strewn all over the stage is a cold and cynical character. But the cigar-chomping, perpetually bored hooker that Petersen portrays doesn't exude any sex appeal. Why are men (and women) repeatedly willing to throw away their lives for her? With Petersen this is a mystery. Being sexy is about more than having great legs. I often felt like I was watching a singing mannequin last night.

Peterson and Reuter, Photo by Ken Howard
The supporting cast were all decent. Susan Graham's Countess Geschwitz injected some pathos to the otherwise rather cold direction. Her voice was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra and now has a graying pallor, but it was still a marvelous performance. The Countess's lament near the end of the opera ("If I were to throw myself into the river, what is more cold? The water or Lulu's heart) was blessedly free of any directorial intervention, and became the saddest moment of the evening. When Lulu came back with her last customer (Jack the Ripper) and blithely dismissed Geschwitz as her "sister" there were no splashy projections. The coldness of the remark sunk in and caused a chill. I also really enjoyed Franz Grundheber;'s comically sleazy turn as Shigolch. It's a brief part but he really knows what to do with the role. Other standouts: Martin Winkler's oily Animal Trainer/Acrobat, and Elisabeth De Shong, who had a rich mezzo and made a real vocal impact in her three brief roles (Wardrobe Mistress/Schoolboy/Page).

Alwa and Lulu, Photo by Ken Howard
Lulu's quartet of doomed husbands were less successful. To be fair, the Physician (James Courtney) is onstage so briefly that he doesn't have time to make an impact. Paul Groves (Painter) sounded vocally worn and he didn't make much of an impact in Act One. Daniel Brenna (Alwa) was vocally fresh but probably needs more experience on how to grab attention -- Alwa plays a pivotal role in the opera, but Brenna sort of stayed in the background, and the character seemed detached from the drama of the evening. As for Johan Reuter's  Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper, he has a big beefy bass-baritone but his interpretation was very cold, brutish, without a hint of any of the tenderness and/or manipulation that would make Lulu so deeply attached to her "protector" so many years later. The director made no attempt to differentiate Dr. Schön's social class, to give him a veneer of respectability that would make his childhood "patronage" of Lulu believable.

But maybe this brutish portrayal was Kentridge's vision. Lothar Koenigs' reading of the score in the pit was also loud and unsubtle, and went for bombast rather than the lyricism that is abundantly present in Berg's difficult, dense 12-tone score. 

Kentridge's approach to the opera works if you pick a few famous lines from Lulu -- that moment, for instance, when Alwa says that were it not for her eyes, he would think she was the "coldest whore" in the earth, and Lulu responds that she's never pretended to be anything other than what "men need me to be." Lulu as cold, unfeeling sex object -- that's the focus of the production. 

But that ignores the heart-rending backstory of this opera that gives the title character a complexity and richness and makes the opera more than a tawdry tale of the Fall of a Femme Fatale. Lulu's horrific childhood, her inability to relate to others in a way that's not sexual and destructive, the creepy child abuse vibes you immediately feel when you see her with Shigolch and  Schön, and her desperation to be with somebody (she finds three johns in the course of 10 minutes, and begs the last one to stay with her for a pittance), that's also Lulu. Her love for Schön is sick and twisted, but it's real. It's what makes Alban Berg's opera such a challenging but rewarding experience. Those nuances were mostly gone in Kentridge's splashy but impersonal production.

As I said, Lulu is more than having great legs.

As a side note, supertitles in this production are imposed at the bottom corners of the stage with the idea, I suppose, for you to stare at the stage constantly and not at the back of the seat. 

18 comments:

  1. I actually think Petersen's conception of the role makes sense, though i'm just going off of your description. It's not like Lulu actually goes out her way to seduce these men, they come to her. She says as much right before she shoots Schon. She doesn't desire these men and doesn't project any emotion or feeling at all until act 3. If she behaved in any other way, she'd just be another femme fatale. Have you seen Christine Schafer in the role. Her conception of the role was ideal IMO. She didn't do any active seducing. She just stood there, completely impenetrable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know, I think one of the things about Lulu is that I believe she genuinely loves Dr. Schon. It's a sick, destructive kind of love, but it's there. Lulu reminds me a lot of Gillian Darmody in Boardwalk Empire. The same damaged childhood, destructive tendencies. But in the case of Lulu I do think that there needs to be some glimmer of humanity and desperation in her. The ice cold sex object approach doesn't work for me.

      Delete
    2. To each his own. I think that what your saying it totally valid and that the role itself is so rich that it merits many different interpretations. You may want to check out the Stratas video from Paris (very poor quality). She plays the role in the way you describe, with genuine compassion for Schon. Very human and vulnerable. It's worth watching, Chereau is a genius IMO and that was the premiere of the third act.

      But do check out Schafer she was in her prime then and sings the music so beautifully.

      Great review btw. I love your blog and your down to earth writing style.

      Delete
    3. Thanks Peter for the kind comments.

      Is this the video you're talking about?
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxfi5UM3PNE

      I love Stratas in this. She's what I'm talking about. You can very much see the damaged bird underneath the cold femme fatale persona. At 1 hr 26 minutes in she shoots Schon but I love the way she still fondly strokes him afterwards.The sick but real love is very much evident.

      Delete
    4. yes Ivy, that was the video I'm talking about. I'm actually normally not a fan of Stratas and when she sang the role at the met she was nowhere near as detailed, which I why I think Chereau deserves much of the credit. I have never seen more naturalistic opera acting than from his production and Stratas' physicality when dealing with the people around her is riveting, and not just with Schon. Even when she's playing around with the schoolboy (and excellent Hanna Schwarz) the touching and feeling is so detailed.

      Schafer is still number because I think she's riveting but Stratas in this production is ideal. Yvonne minton is also probably the finest countess ever.

      Delete
    5. Also I don't see someone like Schafer as being Femme Fatale at all. I see a girl who has no feelings of any kind because she's never allowed to develop any. She's aware of her power but she doesn't have the autonomy Stratas has. When Schon confronts her she seems not irritated, but sort of at a loss with his passion not quite understanding what he's so upset because she's incapable of understanding emotions.

      Delete
  2. I think you would have liked Christine Schaefer the revival before last.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She was incredible, my person favorite in the role.

      Delete
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0wVNmfo8X8

    This is what I mean. She doesn't have to force him into doing anything. She merely watches him self destruct.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just saw that clip. Loved it. She acts like a businesswoman who's just signed off on a merger.

      Delete
    2. I love the way she runs her fingers through Schon's hair when she says "but i havn't the strength". So chilling. She was one of my all-time favorites, it's a shame her voice decline somewhat prematurely. After giving a miraculous Cherubino at Salzburg (which is also on dvd) her met performances were a big disappointment, though she was probably the finest among the ladies. She was also one of the finest Violetta's I've seen.

      Delete
    3. I heard her give a lovely Gilda and then only a few years later I had no idea what happened to her voice. I heard she went through a lot of personal problems.

      Delete
    4. Her husband died of cancer I believe (2003 or 2004) and I think she had an insane schedule following that. She's basically retired now. As recently as 2009 she was giving a very moving performance as Theodora at Salzburg. Even with reduced resources she made something magical out of the role. I actually prefer her to Upshaw.

      Delete
  4. Great review, Ivy, one of the few (let's start with The Times) that gets what's going on with Kentridge, why it doesn't work as a staging of a story (as self promotion with a complex background score, maybe), with good insights into a multi-level complicated story. All of that cleanly and clearly written. Brava!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Albert! I'm still DYING to hear about what you thought of Lulu on your blog!!!

      Delete
  5. Thank you for this excellent review, with which I must (sadly) agree. "Mundane" is the perfect word to describe Kentridge's actual direction. For such an ostensibly "busy" production, many of the director's ideas came off as uninspired, predictable, starting with those ridiculous and ever-present silent actors, whose "expressionist" antics all but ruined (for me) some of the most rapturously beautiful music ever composed. I suspect that I will enjoy the production much more during the HD broadcast. Unlike some, I loved everything about Petersen's performance, but felt that none of the men came anywhere near her level, with the exception of Franz Grundheber's wonderfully gross Schigolch. Production: everything, everyone, and every place looked the same ... one big blob of "busyness" that obliterated class distinctions and so much else in Berg's carefully calibrated masterpiece. The grim farce in Act II of Lulu's hiding away of her lovers and their eventual disastrous discovery went for nothing. This is a casino? Oh, right. Where's the Countess? Oh, yeah, I think that's her over there in that dreary schmatta. Oh, look, doesn't that look like a Max Beckmann! How sophisticated.

    I enjoyed The Nose very much, but from his latest production at the Met, I would say that Kentridge doesn't know what to do with tragedy, especially tragedy that is laced with the darkest humor. "Ist das noch der Diwan, auf dem sich dein Vater verblutet hat?"

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Ivy - saw the HD yesterday which was maddening because you had to look at what the director wanted to show you and not necessarily eat you wanted to see. It looked as if too much was going on anyway (but we were largely spared the very irritating *doubles*).

    Enjoyed your take on it all, but wanted to suggest that the ..."ink sketches of the various men in Lulu's life" actually are of various musicians - Schoenberg, Mahler, several others I could not place.

    Thank you for this very good read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Manou, thanks for that info. I did see Mahler but don't really know what Schoenberg and Berg look like off the top of my head. I just sort of thought Kentridge was sketching men coming in and out of her life.

      Delete