‘Lulu’ at the Met


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

Alban Berg
Alban Berg; drawing by David Levine

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…

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