Petersen finds humanity in the darkness of Met’s visually stunning “Lulu”

Fri Nov 06, 2015 at 12:17 pm
Marlis Petersen in the title role and Daniel Brenna as Alwa in the Metropolitan Opera production of Alban Berg's "Lulu." Photo: Ken Howard

Marlis Petersen in the title role and Daniel Brenna as Alwa in the Metropolitan Opera production of Alban Berg’s “Lulu.” Photo: Ken Howard

Near the end of Act 2 of Alban Berg’s Lulu, as Alwa is about to bed his father’s wife and killer, he stares at her and remarks, “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.”

“Would to God that I were,” she replies.

That exchange was the key to understanding Marlis Petersen’s interpretation of the title role, leading a cast in the Metropolitan Opera’s highly anticipated new production by William Kentridge Thursday night.

Adapted by Berg himself from two plays by Frank Wedekind, Lulu charts the rise and fall of an archetypical femme fatale. Rescued from the street at a young age by an older patron, she becomes a model, then a dancer, then finally a prostitute; goes to and escapes from prison; and is ultimately murdered after leaving a series of lovers and several bodies in her wake.

Rather than the cold character suggested in the libretto and often portrayed onstage, Petersen’s Lulu had a persistent human warmth, retaining a spark of innocence to the very end. In the opening scene with the painter, faint hints of childlike humor bubbled up, only to be chastened by her shock at the sudden death of her husband. In the Act II confrontation with Dr. Schön she seemed completely revolted by the gun he tried to force into her hand, finally wresting it from him in self-defense. Most heartbreaking of all were her pleas to Jack the Ripper to stay with her the entire night, as though terrified of finding herself alone.

Petersen’s performance was moving, but somewhat surprising in downplaying the powerful sexuality of her character in both her acting and the shining clarity of her singing. That gap was filled instead by Kentridge’s stark and suggestive staging. Paper flaps with drawn-on breasts taped to Petersen’s costume offer a gentle reminder that the character is, in fact, naked or nearly so in many of the opera’s scenes. But her sensuality is not always obvious in her physical bearing or interactions–in the extended love scene at the end of act II, as Alwa sings an ode to the perfection of various parts of Lulu’s body, he hardly lays so much as a finger on her.

The subtext is made plain enough by Kentridge’s collage-drawings, full body nudes of Lulu drawn on torn dictionary pages and projected onto Sabine Theunissen’s angular, dimly colored sets. As in the director’s production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, the collages are manipulated to create constant animation, subtly altering Lulu’s expressions and position while the heads of Lulu’s many suitors (in fact stylized and modified portraits of Berg) look on.

Rather than Petersen herself, the Lulu of the drawings more closely resemble Joanna Dudley, a silent actor who spends most of the opera at a piano at the edge of the stage, alternately observing the action and staring down the audience. Together with the drawings she seems to represent the sensual soul of Lulu, teasing with her clothing, contorting herself, and draping her legs over the lip of the piano.

Other details, such as the complicated color-coded wardrobes of the supporting cast, are equally difficult to unpack. Heavily symbolic stagings like this have historically been rare at the Met, but with 2014’s Prince Igor and last season’s Bluebeard’s Castle, productions that offer an intellectual challenge are starting to become a welcome trend. This Lulu staging is every bit as much a puzzlement as the opera itself; rather than trying to bring the drama down to an easily “accessible” level, it embraces the rich challenges inherent in the piece and demands thoughtful engagement from the audience. This Lulu is a an exciting addition to the Met’s repertoire, an achievement made no less powerful by the host of unanswered questions that Kentridge leaves at the final curtain.

Marlis Petersen and Johan Reuter as Dr. Schön in Berg's "Lulu." Photo: Ken Howard

Marlis Petersen and Johan Reuter as Dr. Schön in Berg’s “Lulu.” Photo: Ken Howard

Musically, Thursday’s premiere was excellent, though not without flaws. The supporting cast uniformly showed impressive voices and keen musical sense: Johan Reuter brought burly, coarse-grained power to the roles of Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper, and Susan Graham was warm and sympathetic as Countess Geschwitz. Martin Winkler was particularly formidable, showing a robust bass-baritone as the animal tamer and the acrobat, and Daniel Brenna impressed with a dark, muscular tenor in his debut as Alwa. All of the singers at times starkly emphasized the angular harshness of the music, contributing to the perception of some that Berg’s music is rough or even “ugly.”

Berg’s opera (including the superb Act III completion by Friedrich Cerha), a near-monolithic masterpiece of serialist opera, is spectacularly difficult to manage, and even more difficult to make musical sense of. Lothar Koenigs, assigned to the early part of the run after James Levine opted out, led a tight, if slightly timid performance, hitting his best stride in the steamy haze of Dr. Schön and Lulu’s love theme.

At the last curtain, Kentridge received one of the loudest ovations given to a director in recent seasons. Admittedly, the sort of audience interested in spending four hours with the Second Viennese School is likely a self-selecting one, but it’s nice to see the company rewarded for challenging its image as a stuffy old repertory outfit.

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

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