November 22, 2015

A "Lulu" of an Opera

A performance of "Lulu" is not your usual night at the opera.  This dark tale of rags to riches and back to rags via sex, murder, prison, cholera and prostitution is told over three acts in Alban Berg's discordant twelve-tone score.  The latest version now in performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera House features director William Kentridge's daring new production that renders the story even more harrowing.  Not surprisingly it has caused quite a buzz in cultural circles and last Tuesday evening I was able to procure tickets to experience the phenomenon myself.

"Lulu" was written by Berg between 1929 and 1933, a time of great political and social tension in Austria.  Though Berg himself was not Jewish, his teacher and mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, was, and this guilt by association proved enough to cause his music to be considered entartete or "degenerate" and banned.  Berg wrote both the score, using Schoenberg's atonal technique, and the libretto based on two plays by Frank Wedekind "Earth Spirit", 1895, and "Pandora's Box", 1904.  Unfortunately Berg died suddenly before finishing Act III of "Lulu" and the incomplete opera premiered in neutral Zurich in 1937.  For the next forty years the opera was performed and recorded by several major houses but always missing the concluding act as the composer's widow forbid anyone from completing her husband's work.  Upon Helene Berg's death in 1976 the opera was finally finished by Friedrich Cerha, another Austrian composer who worked from Berg's careful notes.  The first performance of the full opera was presented in Paris in February 1979 with Teresa Stratas singing the title role.

The current production made its debut at The Met just a few weeks ago on November 5th and is the brainchild of South African artist William Kentridge.  Mr. Kentridge has interpreted the opera as a German Expressionist extravaganza that works with the atonality of the music and the sordidness of the story.  The Art Deco sets are presented against an ever-changing backdrop of black and white projections that alternate between Kentridge's own drawings and headlines from newspapers.  The costumes are also avant garde with some characters wearing paper masks, Lulu herself in seductive dress (sometimes made of paper) and a large paper hand that re-appears over and over like the hand of God.

Marlis Petersen as Lulu

The tale of "Lulu" is a complicated one based on lies, lust and longing.  It begins in Vienna in the late 19th century with the protagonist, who is married to a doctor, having her portrait painted by an artist who is in love with her.  They are briefly interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Schön, a newspaper publisher who has a long history with Lulu, and his son Alwa, a composer who is also in love with her.  When the doctor returns and discovers the artist pursuing his wife he suffers a fatal stroke.  The artist then marries Lulu and they live in relative comfort, secretly supported by Dr. Schön, until Lulu learns that Dr. Schön is going to marry someone else and becomes distraught.  Dr. Schön, longing to finally be free of Lulu's tentacles, exposes their history together to the artist and he kills himself.

Lulu eventually forces Dr. Schön to break off his engagement and marry her and they live unhappily but inevitably together, torturing each other but unable to be apart.  Dr. Schön finally can no longer bear the coterie of Lulu's admirers from his own son to the lesbian Countess Geschwitz and gives her a gun to kill herself.  Instead she kills him and is taken to prison where she contracts cholera and eventually escapes thanks to an elaborate plan hatched by the Countess and several rather unsavory scoundrels from her past.

Johan Reuter and Marlis Petersen as Dr. Schön and Lulu

The action then moves to Paris where Lulu has fled with Alwa.  Their efforts to make a new life are thwarted by characters from her past who threaten to expose her secrets and have her thrown back into jail.  Destitute and afraid, the two flee again, this time to London where Lulu is forced to become a prostitute.  Her first client is a philosopher, played by her first husband the physician, the next client is an African prince, played by the artist, and the third and ultimate client is Jack the Ripper, played by, you guessed it, Dr. Schön, who kills her.

So ends the short sad life of Lulu.  Rising and falling from the ghetto to the bourgeoisie and back down onto the streets again she is the embodiment of the Biblical Eve.  A sexual predator until forced to turn tricks, a murderer who was finally murdered, she looked out only for number one until she was her own worst enemy.  Berg's discordant score set against Kentridge's shocking production made for an evening that the audience will not soon forget.  "Lulu" continues at The Met until December 3.

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