Sunday, 22 November 2015

Live in HD: Met Opera - Berg's Lulu ★★★★★

“Were it not for those childlike eyes of yours, I should take you for the most cunning whore that ever led a man to ruin.” These are the words Alwa says at the end of Act 2 of Alban Berg's Lulu just as he seduces his father's wife and murderer. Lulu replies, “Would to God that I were.” This is the most clearest way of understanding Marlis Petersen's leading role at the MetOpera's new productin, under the direction by South African visionaire, William Kentridge.

Berg captured the concept of the highly dramatic tale of Lulu - the femme fatale and object of desire - originally written by playwright Frank Wedekind. From child beggar, who is rescued by a doctor, she becomes a model, a stage performer and dies a prostitute. She is also taken prisoner, escapes but is ultimately killed after enrapturing the hearts of many lovers, some who died because of her.

Petersen's Lulu, however, has something indisputably loveable about her. Her innocence (not as innocent as Manon Lescaut though), pity and warmth draw audience’s eyes to her every move. In the outset, her first husband faints in front of her as she models for a painter, yet her childlike reaction and fickle flirtations set the wheels for what can only become a tragic ending. The shock of her true love, Dr. Schön, shoving a gun into her hand whilst frantically forcing her to kill herself and desperate pleas to Jack the Ripper to stay the night, as if she is terrified of being alone, point at the desperation, naivety and vulnerability of a woman that everyone wants. 

Kentridge doesn't commit any stage scandals. Petersen's characterisation leaves out nudity and the power of sex, which is channelled through stark, animated and dynamic video projections instead. This gives audiences more chance to understand Lulu through Petersen's clarity of voice and fearless acting. Pieces of paper with drawn-on images of breasts are glued onto Petersen's costume, offering a subtle suggestion of nakedness where, in the past, productions tended to dress singers performing Lulu in the nude. Even in Act II, as Alwa sings about her flawless body, Alwa hardly lays a finger on her.
Sabine Theunissen's sharp, poised and highly charged projections of cut out dictionary pages with splashes of thick black ink and full body nudes bring the opera to life, providing symbolism and context to this highly perplexing drama. This is Kentridge's second production at the Met, following Shostakovich's The Nose, where his collages create movement and expressions of Lulu's various lovers; there's also omnipresent portraits of the composer as well.

A silent actress is positioned on the edge of the stage. She observes Lulu's actions and glares back and forth at the audience as if she were as much as part of the viewing process as they are. She is a representation of Lulu's inner self; the sensual and playfulness attributed to Lulu through strange postures, such as sticking her legs out of a piano and opening her legs wide, where Petersen doesn't have to.

Watching it at the Curzon cinema, however, there's a sense that cinema audiences where let off, not having to deal with so much happening on the vivacious stage. While the video director, Michael Diamond, offers brevity and focused footage to keep up with real-time action, Met audiences are exposed to a barrage of conceptual visuals that could throw them off; the opera may seem more demanding on the eyes for them. Yet, despite these misgivings, in my years of watching Live in HD screenings of the Met, this is one of the best stage designs I have seen out of New York.
Also the cinema acoustics didn't hinder the splendour and skill of its shinny cast. Johan Reuter exudes the appeal of an intelligent and rich Dr. Schön with the psychotic depth and darkness of Jack the Ripper through his rich bass-baritone voice. As Countess Geschwitz, Susan Graham does an impeccable job singing as the most honest, mislead and misguided lesbian lover of Lulu. Martin Winkler is tough and sturdy as the acrobat and animal tamer while Daniel Brenna sings brilliantly as the subdued and bright-eyed Alwa.

For those listening to Berg for the first time, one has to be prepared of the harshness and roughness of his music, yet the appeal of Lulu is in the lyricism of its libretto which is equally enhanced by superb and distinguished singing.

With the final act completed by Friedrich Cerha, where Berg died before he completed it, it is a challenging opera for directors to stage and musicians to truly understand. This is stressed more with the historical context it was written in and the pulsating intensity of its lead characters.

The Met orchestra are tenacious. Lotha Koenigs conducts the production with skill and wonderment (which James Levine opted out of due to health reasons), as if he knew the score through and through. In those heart-stopping scenes, Lulu's love scene with Dr. Schön and the countess's cry when Lulu is murdered, we hear the slick and versatile stripes of Berg's creative music writing.

It is no surprise that here at the Curzon Cinema, in Chelsea, viewers were cheering on for Petersen at the curtain call. Even though she may not have heard their reaction, it is a clear sign that she deserves the roar of applause after mastering a role, vocally and theatrically, for more than 20 years. She has announced that this was her final show as Lulu, and to that we can only salute her.   

Lulu runs through December 3 at the Metropolitan Opera. Derrick Inouye conducts on November 24, November 28, and December 3.


Lulu runs through December 3 at the Metropolitan Opera. Derrick Inouye conducts on November 24, November 28, and December 3. - See more at:
Lulu runs through December 3 at the Metropolitan Opera. Derrick Inouye conducts on November 24, November 28, and December 3. - See more at:

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