|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|
|Alwa and Lulu, Photo by Ken Howard|
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.