Opera thrives on femmes fatales, and there are none in all the repertory quite as fatale as Lulu, the titular siren of Alban Berg's unfinished final work which the Metropolitan Opera has returned to the stage in a dazzling new production by William Kentridge and with the alluring Marlis Petersen delivering an inspired and sensual performance of a fated woman.
It is stunning and memorable operatic experience that the Met will offer to audiences around the world on Nov. 21 when it simulcasts its matinee performance of Lulu to more than 2,000 theaters in some 70 countries as part of its Live in HD series.
Lulu is pretty much Everyman's erotic fantasy, and each of her string of husbands and lovers try to mold her into his own personal ideal, even changing her name to suit his fancy. But Lulu (a k a Mignon or Nelly) is not so easily typed. She has ideals of her own, and when the parade of men with whom she becomes involved fail to live up to her needs and expectations she simply moves on to the next one.
Kentridge, a South African artist whose production of Shostakovich's The Nose was a big Met success five years ago, uses a collage of illustrations as a backdrop to the action onstage. Pen and ink sketches are drawn, then altered, then animated (often winking) to illustrate the characters, much like one might see on late-night Cartoon Network shows. Lulu herself is sometimes represented being undressed with bits of paper stuck on indicating her breasts and pubic area.
Other projections show newspaper headlines or blots that resemble Rorschach tests. A doll-like woman (unobtrusively played by Joanna Dudley) sits silently at a grand piano at stage left (moving to stage right for Acts II and III), acting as a sort of alter ego to Lulu. At one point, apparently signaling her promiscuity, she takes one stocking off, then puts it back on; stocking off, stocking on; stocking off, stocking on. You get the idea.
Berg based his opera on two plays by Frank Wedekind -- Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box -- both of which were banned for their sexual explicitness in fin di siècle Germany. Berg's score perfectly reflects the times in which it was composed. The Nazis, under whom the performance of atonal music was prohibited as decadent, had just risen to power and the world was fast reeling into a discord that echoed the 12-tone music of the day.
Still, Berg worked on Lulu until his death in 1935, leaving only parts of the final act uncompleted but with notes on how he planned to proceed. However, his widow blocked any attempt to write an ending and it was only after her death that the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha finished work on the three-act opera.
While there are no easily recognizable melodies in the score of Lulu and nothing that really could be called an aria, there are certain musical themes for individual characters and there are solos and duets and quartets that advance the plot and explore their motivations and inner feelings.
Lulu opens with a prologue in which a carnival barker urges the audience to visit his menagerie of wild and dangerous beasts, the serpent Lulu being the most exotic. When we actually meet her, she is posing for her portrait in an artist's studio with a paper sack over her head and wearing a giant paper cutout of a hand, much like the foam hands boasting "We're No. 1" one sees at baseball fields and football stadiums. The paper sacks and hands come and go throughout.
She is married at the time to an unnamed Physician; is the longtime mistress of Dr. Schoen, a newspaper publisher; and the object of lustful desires by the Painter and Alwa, the son of her lover Schoen. She is a lost girl at sea in a world that was changing rapidly. Asked by the Painter what she believes in she simply replies, "I don't know." To the question "Have you ever been in love?" she again responds, "I don't know."
As she moves from Vienna to Paris to London, she will go through three husbands -- one of whom she gives a heart attack, another she drives to suicide and the third she plugs in the back with five pistol shots -- and myriad lovers, including an acrobat, a prince, a countess and followed around like a puppy by Alwa. And there is the father (or is he?) who keeps showing up asking for money.
A case can be made that Lulu is at heart a morality opera. The trajectory of her life only goes downhill until we last see her in London reduced to life on the streets in the world's oldest profession and one of her first clients Jack the Ripper (though Kentridge's setting is the era in which the opera was composed, long after the Ripper retired).
Petersen, a German soprano who has made Lulu a signature role and who has said these Met performances will be her last in it, is a marvel. She makes the vocal runs that leap up and down like a yo-yo seem effortless and she sustains a demanding sequence of notes at the very top of the register with breathtaking ease. It's a last chance to see her astonishing performance and should not be missed by any opera lover, no matter how one feels about 12-tone music.
The Met has put together an all-round first-rate cast many of whom sing multiple roles, and the German conductor Lothar Koenigs, who stepped in at the last moment when James Levine -- who first brought Lulu to the Met in 1977 -- had to drop out to concentrate on the Met's "Tannhauser," led the Met Orchestra brilliantly.