Lulu

Alban Berg
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Lulu Credit: Metropolitan Opera

Firstly, there was 1898 play by Frank Wedekind. Then there was the 1929 silent film by G W Pabst starring Louise Brooks. And then there was the unfinished opera by Alban Berg written in 1935 and premièred in 1937.

It is not pleasant watching wild animals in a grotesque circus for 3 hours 22 minutes. Yet, here I am watching it again and online. Berg’s powerful score is perfect for this cruel, sordid, degrading, relentlessly horrible melodrama.

William Kentridge’s production, which I saw when it was performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum in 2015 with a different cast, gives the opera the full German expressionistic treatment.

Members of the audience were rushing out of the auditorium and throwing up in the lavatory. People were leaving in large numbers during the intervals, unable to take the music, the bad language and the wallpaper.

The story, set at the turn of the century in the morally and financially bankrupt societies of Berlin, Paris and London, traces the spectacular rise and fall of Lulu, an insatiable whore.

The stage is littered with the corpses of her sexually obsessed and humiliated lovers. Their deaths leave her totally unfazed. She is seemingly indestructible until she falls into the hands of a sex maniac (Jack the Ripper, no less).

South African director and artist William Kentridge’s production, with its massive animated projections and its cylinder white head masks and large white hands, is striking.

The pen and ink drawings, mainly variations of Lulu, often naked, are created with huge black brush strokes. Columns of newspapers and the pages of books are then blown up and flashed all over the scenery. The continuous projections overwhelm the production, just as they did in Kentridge’s production of Shostakovich’s The Nose for The Met.

The legendary Louise Brooks is a hard act to follow. Her pale face framed by her jet-black air is one of cinema’s most enduring iconic images. But Marlis Petersen has managed made the role totally her own. The performance is brilliantly sung and acted, the personification of raw sexuality. She is a blank canvas on which men and women can project their sexual fantasies. She is all things to all men and women.

A silent mannequin plays Lulu’s spirit. Joanna Dudley sits at, on and finally in a grand piano at the side of the stage, her contorted body language constantly mirroring and commentating on Lulu’s actions.

The opera’s challenges are great and met. The conductor is Lothar Koenigs and there are strong performances by Susan Graham as the lesbian countess, by Johan Reuter as newspaper publisher Dr Schon and by Daniel Brenna as Schon’s composer son.

Alban Berg’s opera is a demanding, disturbing and overwhelming experience for director, conductor, singers, orchestra and audiences alike. Lulu is not for the faint-hearted.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch