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.
Yet the panel itself was a less serious gaffe than the images flashed on it. Mr. Porter refers to the latter as one of the
little things wrong that can easily be put right. Irrelevant projections during the interludes distract attention from music that the composer intended to be heard without visual accompaniment, and lessen the effect of the narrative projections during the Act II interlude (at the Met, a series of slides, instead of a film, is used), which Berg did specify.
From this tangled grammar it is difficult to determine whether Berg specified an “interlude,” “narrative projections,” “series of slides,” or a “film,” but readers who succeed in sorting out the syntax should be warned that the projections of slides are not merely “irrelevant” and distracting, or “little things wrong,” but flagrant contradictions of the music, whose most obvious messages the director seems not to have heard. For example, the orchestral transition between the last two scenes in Act One is associated with Dr. Schön, his feelings for Lulu and his triumph over the Painter—Lulu’s husband, who has just slit his throat as a result of Schön’s revelations about her past. Yet during this most un-Terpsichorean, Wotan-like passage, the panel drop serves as an affiche to advertise Lulu’s forthcoming appearance as a dancer. Whether or not Mr. Dexter regarded the music as of an undifferentiated “background” variety and not related to the drama, he was clearly insensitive to its character. Where Berg sets the change of mood and the new scene in the three beats before it simply by introducing an offstage jazz band, Mr. Dexter sledgehammers the effect, and prematurely.
The most glaring incongruity of the kind was in the final scene, where Schigolch and Alwa are wrongly present in the attic during Geschwitz’s Adagio. Since the “Variations” movement in the Lulu Symphony (the concert suite that Berg compiled from the opera) is played immediately before the Adagio, with which the opera ends, the stage director apparently assumed that the two pieces should be juxtaposed in the opera as well. Since the publication of the score of the Symphony in 1935, however, it has been known that the two pieces are separated in the opera by some 400 measures, which include the music for the Schigolch and Alwa episodes that Mr. Dexter places in the Adagio, by which time both characters should have been disposed of. Yet the absurd pantomime of Schigolch, trembling hand reaching for a bottle, is enacted against the parallel fifths associated with Geschwitz since her first appearance in the opera and, by this time, almost embarrassingly obvious. How, one wonders, can such mismating of action and music pass unnoticed by the conductor, the reviewers, and the public? Have music’s three m’s, movie, mood, and Muzak, numbed them all?
Mr. Porter asks if Lulu is Berg’s masterpiece, and answers
that knowing only two-thirds and a bit of it, how could one tell?
But surely two-thirds is sufficient to indicate that the complete opera could not approach the universality, the musical and dramatic unity, and the sustained genius of Wozzeck. As Rilke so aptly wrote of the hero of Büchner’s play:
Around this most trivial existence is all the greatness of humanity…. This misused person in his stable jacket stands in cosmic space….
Contrast this with the case for abnormal psychology at the center of Berg’s other opera, Frau Dr. Schön, who can arouse little sympathy and almost no sense of identification. Her decline and degradation, in the opera’s third act, will doubtless modify these responses, and inspire pity. Yet whether tragic emotion is what the audience experiences at her death, or a feeling of justice and retribution—her murderer, Jack the Ripper, is musically presented as the reincarnated Dr. Schön—cannot be known without the whole of Act Three.
Will the question be resolved even then? The inconsistencies in Lulu’s character in the first two acts seem to support a negative reply. True, her twinge of remorse after killing Schön implies that she has the beginnings of a conscience. (Professor George Perle’s notes for the Metropolitan program refer to Lulu as “the natural and therefore innocent woman,” but is it either natural or innocent to kill as she does?) When it comes to her responsibility in the deaths of her other husbands, audiences simply do not know how to react, not because they condone her behavior, but because these unknown (Dr. Goll) and banal (the Painter) people do not engage much interest.
Still another imponderable is the extent of the audience’s involvement with Geschwitz in Act Three. Supposedly she is the only one of the dramatis personae capable of nobility and altruism, and it is her fidelity and selflessness that redeem the sordid finale; her Liebestod is perhaps the opera’s most moving music. Yet from the little seen of her in Act Two, she is not especially appealing, and the pentatonic mode with which she is characterized, or caricatured, begins to pall and even becomes corny. Moreover, her devotion to Lulu in contracting cholera in order to join the beloved in the hospital, then exchanging clothes with her, strains belief and seems to many—like the love of Julian the Hospitaller—perverse. Berg himself confessed:
I haven’t much feeling for the character of Countess Geschwitz, though I must respect her. I find her harder to set to music than all of Lulu’s satellites put together. [Letter of March 9, 1934, to his wife]
Mr. Porter assures his readers that
dramatically and musically, the opera is very carefully constructed in a balanced span. The first act and a half…shows Lulu’s ascent…. At the center of the opera there is a palindromic orchestral interlude that Berg intended to be accompanied by a film whose images, while narrative (they tell of Lulu’s trial for the murder of Dr. Schön, her imprisonment, and her escape), have a matching palindromic pattern. The second half of Act II and the last act…trace Lulu’s descent.
The mathematical symmetry of the form is also, as Mr. Porter’s description implies, pyramidal. But other episodes besides the film Ostinato are palindromic—among them the Sextet, the Monoritmica, the Kammerdiener scene—and these also exploit rising and falling musico-dramatic shapes, delineated by dynamic (crescendo-decrescendo), coloristic (muted-unmuted), and temporal (accelerating-decelerating) means. In fact retrograde structures are found in the smallest musical units (cf. the clarinet part at the death of Schön, Act Two, measure 606), and are so pervasive that the audience may begin to think in terms of them—for instance, when the heroine shrieks before Jack the Ripper kills her, that Lulu ululates.
The pyramidal form, an imitation of, and with the same natural dramatic construction as, orgasm, has never before been used by a composer to the extent that Berg exploits it in Lulu (as well as in the Lyric Suite, Der Wein, and the second movement—one of the pinnacles of twentieth-century music—of the Chamber Concerto). Obviously some inner pathological connection existed between Berg’s propensity for retrograde forms and his artistic employment of them. He was obsessed with mirrors—his stage directions in Lulu specify them—and he seems to have been narcissistic to an extraordinary degree, which is implied by his obsession with self-identifications in his work.
The retrograde concept dominates some of the action as well as the music, and the opera’s largest formal division places Schön’s first half back to back with Geschwitz’s second. In Act Three the roles of Lulu-the-prostitute’s last customers are sung by her victims in Acts One and Two, but, as Berg wrote to Schoenberg, “in reverse order, of course.”
As for the careful construction of the opera, what is true on paper does not prove to be so in practice. While the exposition of the plot in Act One is logical, and the characters, regardless of their wide diversity, stand in well-integrated relationships, Act Two rambles, introducing new, strangely different and nameless types (the Schoolboy, the Acrobat) who fail to hold the audience’s attention. The scene after the film, before Lulu returns and plans to leave for Paris with Alwa, is so great a letdown partly because the film music itself is one of the opera’s high points—pace Mr. Porter, the pictures in the Met production did not match the palindromic pattern of the interlude—but mainly because the Schoolboy and the Acrobat, who reappear, deserve a very high place among the Great Bores of Opera. Still, the most important reason is that Dr. Schön, the opera’s male protagonist, or as near to being so as anyone in it, is now gone, leaving a void that neither his son Alwa nor Geschwitz fills. In brief, a new opera begins here, and the large infusion of new characters in Act Three, some of them reincarnations from the first opera, suggests that the second opera might be still more bewildering.
Helene Berg, the composer’s widow, died in August 1976, having survived him by forty-one years. At the time of his death, the third act was composed but not completely orchestrated. Some of Berg’s associates were asked but declined to undertake this task, and the first performance (Zürich, 1937) consisted of the first two acts and the Variations and Adagio from the third. Shortly after Berg’s death, a biographer, Willi Reich, wrote that the instrumentation of the sections which Berg did not orchestrate “could easily be carried out”—though any musician who could regard the orchestration of a single measure by Berg as something “easy” would obviously not be qualified for the work. Twenty years later, another biographer, H.F. Redlich, wrote, less recklessly:
In my own opinion (shared by a good many cognoscenti) the task of orchestrating the rest of Act III…is not beyond the capacity of a musician thoroughly familiar with Berg’s style and methods of composition.
Although the number of these cognoscenti could scarcely have been more than about three, Redlich’s statement would otherwise seem to have been justified.
Meanwhile, however, Frau Berg imposed a ban on the unpublished portions of the opera—a foolish move, since the music was known to exist and would inevitably be published and performed. The widow claimed to be following her husband’s instructions, stated both during his lifetime and, in spiritualist seances, reiterated beyond the grave. But she was severely criticized for the suppression.
Was the condemnation fair? Is it not possible that the widow was complying with her husband’s wishes, those at any rate expressed to her before his death? The question is complicated because of her well-known opposition to his choice of the Wedekind plays, because her marriage was far from the idyll it is made to seem in the nearly 600 letters from him that she published—the very bulk of this correspondence revealing how seldom the two were together—and because, according to a recent discovery, from 1925 until at least the early 1930s Berg was in love with another woman.
Nevertheless, is it not at least conceivable that Berg found himself in a psychological impasse while composing the third act, and that he decided, if only temporarily, that he did not want the opera to be completed even by himself? Perhaps at some point in the later stages of the composition he realized that Wedekind’s blend of tragedy and farce, as well as other conflicts in the playwright’s treatment of the subject, were unresolvable. Berg was attracted to the Lulu plays as early as 1905, and, following Karl Kraus, tended to idealize Wedekind. It is a commonplace about early infatuations of this kind that the disillusions later in life are especially severe. Berg apparently did not begin to look critically at the Wedekind plays before working on the libretto, at which time the composer complained not only of “excessive length” but also of the quality of the language, which he edited. Mr. Porter writes of Wedekind that
[He] sought to reveal the truth behind things, the split between the appearance maintained before the world and the “real” person beneath.
But which writer has not sought to do at least that?
The most significant evidence for Berg’s growing dissatisfaction with Lulu was his readiness to interrupt work on it—to attend performances of his work, to give time to various committees for contemporary music, and, above all, to compose the Violin Concerto, which, in contrast to Lulu, was written at high speed. The inescapable conclusion is that he was running away from the opera, and that his creative passion for it had begun to flag. It should have been deduced at the time of the Lulu Symphony (completed a year and a half before his death), in which the measure numbers in the Variations and Adagio, taken from the third act, correspond to those in the opera, that the composition of the latter was virtually complete. Why, then, could Berg not bring himself to finish the instrumentation?
It is true that his health was poor—he suffered from asthma, and he had little resistance to infection, dying at age fifty from septicemia. Yet the real impediments to completing the opera might well have been emotional. He could have been dissatisfied with parts of it and wanted to revise them before releasing it; revisions are needed in the libretto, where, for example, the recasting of Alwa as a composer—he was a writer in Wedekind—is not consistent. It could be, too, that Berg had lost his belief in the work, or that, conversely, he had so deeply identified himself with it that he feared his own life might come to an end conjointly with that of Lulu. As has already been mentioned, he was obsessed with identifications of himself in his music, through various kinds of encoding—in note and interval anagrams, in the use of symbolic numbers in measures and metronomic markings. “I am Lulu,” he was heard to say, near the end. And, like his heroine, he died on Christmas eve.
May 12, 1977