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Lulu’ at the Met

Lulu

by Alban Berg, conducted by James Levine, directed by John Dexter
at the Metropolitan Opera, New York

The Metropolitan Opera performance of Alban Berg’s Lulu—the available two-thirds of it, that is—has been widely acclaimed, and the full houses and cheers, in contrast to the poor reception at the Met of Berg’s greater opera, Wozzeck, were largely due to the superiority of the production. Paradoxically, Wozzeck, with its economy of words, simple-to-follow plot, and cultural-verbal-musical integrity that translation destroys, was given in English, while Lulu, verbose, complicated, containing stretches of spoken dialogue, was presented in the original German. But the language barrier proved to be an advantage for Lulu, since few in the audience seemed to understand the intricate absurdities of the story, or to notice when words and actions were at variance. It must also be said that to offer a literal translation of the opera would be hazardous, as when Alwa rhapsodizes over Lulu’s “swelling calves.” (Is there a doctor in the house?)

The Met’s new artistic directors must be praised for choosing Lulu, in spite of its many difficulties and risks. On the other hand, having been produced forty years ago and subsequently throughout the world, the opera could hardly be avoided any longer and at the same time promoted as a “controversial modern work”—although with all of its obstacles it is still one of the few masterpieces of contemporary music drama. Anticipation was high, and the New York audience, cozened by enthusiastic advance reports and the heroine’s shady reputation, seemed to be favorably disposed. Finally, when the music was discovered to be less fiercely “dissonant” than expected, and the drama often quite funny—intentionally or otherwise—and never more disturbing than, say, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a box-office success was in the making.

One crucial problem in producing Lulu in its present incomplete state may well remain after Act Three is restored to the work. Berg constructed his libretto from two Wedekind plays, Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora, switching from the first to the second in the middle of Act Two of the opera. From Erdgeist Berg took the story of the femme fatale actress Lulu. In the first scene her husband, a professor of medicine, falls dead as he enters the studio of the Painter, who, interrupting his work on her portrait, is about to make love to her. Lulu marries the Painter, and he, in turn, commits suicide after learning about her past from the rich publisher Dr. Schön, whose mistress she has been, and whom she then marries. In the second act, Lulu shoots Schön and is charged for the murder by his son Alwa, who on her escape from prison becomes her lover; his rivals for her favors include the lesbian Countess Geschwitz.

In Act Three, derived from Die Büchse der Pandora and represented at the Met by brief extracts of spoken dialogue and pantomime, Lulu goes from a Paris gambling den to London, where she is a streetwalker, and is killed in her attic flat by her last client, Jack the Ripper, who also kills Geschwitz. The only survivor is the old man, Schigolch, Lulu’s pimp, her lover, perhaps her father.

The opera changes direction after the death of Schön—which Berg intended, but the turn is disjunct and a major anticlimax. Perhaps this failure can be averted or reduced if the device intended to bridge the two plays, a film portraying Lulu’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment for Schön’s murder, and her escape by changing clothes with the Countess Geschwitz, follows Berg’s plan—and if Lulu and Geschwitz are plainly seen to be the same people in the film as in the opera.

This would at least bring continuity, but John Dexter’s replacement of the film by a montage of lithographs representing progressive stages in the complex action does not provide a sufficiently strong link to join the two Wedekind plays and two halves of the opera. Moreover, the change in the focus on the characters and in the music is so great after the cinematic sequence that the audience is bewildered.

This reviewer found himself in fundamental disagreement with practically all of the appraisals of the production, but must confine this discussion to only one example of these, that of Andrew Porter in The New Yorker, April 4, 1977. The article does not represent this critic at his best, and, besides minor factual errors, contains such empty statements as: “[Berg’s] technique never functioned more precisely than it does in what we have so far vouchsafed of the score,” and Lulu (which uses tone clusters and includes passages of great density) has “one of the most transparent of opera scores.” Mr. Porter writes that

In the title role, Carole Farley embodies more completely than any previous Lulu of my experience both the “mythic” qualities of Lulu the Earth Spirit and Berg’s humanization of Lulu as a particular woman…. Miss Farley’s high notes are not easy, but she reaches them, and her performance is convincing on all counts.

These “‘mythic’ qualities” are not identified, nor is it explained how Miss Farley embodies them, which is not to deny that Berg intended, through music, to endow Lulu with a mythological dimension: this much is apparent if only from the “superhuman” vocal requirements of the role. Whatever the truth of Kierkegaard’s thesis that the seducer is an ideal subject for musical treatment—Lulu and Don Giovanni are often cited as parallel cases in this sense—the most evident justification for converting Wedekind’s prosaic plays into opera is that Lulu’s personal magnetism can best be rendered in music. Certainly her erotic aura is more vividly suggested in her vocal pyrotechnics—a vertiginous flight, a birdlike warble, a coo de grâce after the death of one of her husbands—than in sinuous movements and flirtatious cavortings. To be credible her irresistible sensuality must be substantiated by physical attractions, yet voluptuousness per se is far less essential than a voice of extraordinary resources and allure. It may be a sign of the times that, as the Met production proved, Lulu’s sexuality no longer needs the emphasis of provocative dress or undress.

To this reviewer, Miss Farley’s interpretation conveyed little mystery and no ” ‘mythic’ qualities.” As for Mr. Porter’s statement that her “high notes are not easy,” it would be helpful to know whether he means that her upper registers are not “easy on the ear,” or that she has difficulty in reaching them. Apart from that, his evaluation of her performance as “convincing on all counts” should be contested, since many listeners found her vocally miscast, lacking richness in the middle range and lightness in the coloratura. The Lied der Lulu, for instance, did not have the distinctness of pitch and articulation in the florid passages that other singers have shown in the piece.

The confusion over the “mythic” in this production starts with the prologue, in which the Met disposes of the circus ring used in earlier productions, although the Animal Trainer invites the audience to come inside and see a menagerie. Visual aids would be helpful here, to supplement the Trainer’s descriptions of the beasts, for the prologue should establish the symbols of tiger, bear, crocodile, and serpent that Berg later identifies with the principal characters by transferring to them the leitmotifs originally associated with the animals.

These connections could not have been deeply impressed on the Met’s non-German-speaking audience except in the case of Lulu herself, the only one of the principals to appear in the prologue. She is introduced here as “the root of all evil,” but perhaps only those who interpreted her shepherd’s crook as Aaron’s rod understood that she is also the serpent. When the Animal Trainer mentions “reptiles,” the orchestra plays a chromatic figure later sung by Schigolch on his entrance to the words “Den hab’ ich mir auch ganz anders….” Thus Berg relates Lulu to Schigolch, and both of them to the Biblical allegory, chromaticism being a convention for the serpent at least as old as Renaissance music. If the mythological aspects of the opera are to be realized and if its heroine is to be recognized as an archetype, references such as these must be made literal to be perceived, at least until the score is familiar.

Mr. Porter complains that previous stagings by Gunther Rennert and Wieland Wagner “leaned too heavily on Wedekind,” and, among other shortcomings, “stressed the French-farce episodes of Wedekind’s plays.” But one of the dilemmas in producing Lulu is in knowing how to determine what Berg really intended to be comic. Much of the overt satire—the thump on the bass drum when Alwa wishes to “drop the subject,” the crash on the snare drum in Schön’s “Lebensabend” aria—passes unnoticed. Yet it is Mr. Dexter’s staging that, for the first time in this reviewer’s experience, reduced the apoplectic seizure and death of Dr. Goll in the first scene to “French-farce.” To play the incident to this effect is a serious error: the death profoundly disturbs the Painter, and laughter invalidates the intensity of the music that follows. True, the situation of the stricken man ending his career in the opera so soon and so peremptorily is inherently amusing. So, too, when Don Giovanni mortally wounds the Commendatore, and Leporello asks his master, “Who is dead, you or the old man?” the question may be droll, but only in itself, for Mozart’s music stops any impulse to laugh. Berg’s music, when people learn how to listen to it, will do the same, for the giggles at the Met must be blamed only partly on the way in which the actor fell, partly on the conditioning of audiences to trust their eyes before their ears. Another flaw in the direction of this scene was in having the Painter, who would be terrified of the corpse, repeatedly prod it.

Mr. Porter’s praise for the stage direction should be challenged on other counts. He cites Mr. Dexter’s “feeling for the visual equivalents of the music’s Hauptstimmen and Nebenstimmen“—“principal” and “subordinate” parts, as Schoenberg translated these terms. But can “equivalents” as specific as these exist between two arts? (The experiences of seeing a mirror refraction and of hearing a retrograde inversion would seem to be analogous rather than equivalent.) In any case, the remark implies a multiplicity and stratification of visual elements that simply were not there.

So far from a “feeling for visual equivalents,” the staging was frequently in opposition to the music. Consider one unfortunate innovation, the replacement of the curtain by a panel drop emblazoned with three equal diamond-shaped rhomboids. Here the audience naturally looked for symbols—three-ring circus? ménage à trois? Lulu’s three husband-victims?—and thus was to some extent misled at the beginning of the opera. Moreover, the geometric forms conflicted with the fin de siècle settings, for despite Mr. Porter’s declaration that “the composer moved the action into the twentieth century,” this was by no means conspicuous; nor can it be altogether accurate, since Jack the Ripper, the cast’s one historic figure, seems not to have surfaced after 1888. If the panel suggests anything, it is backgammon and a casino.

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