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Metropolitan Opera Review 2015-16 - 'Lulu': Marlis Peterson is Revelation in Virtuosic & Insightful Production

First Posted: Nov 25, 2015 02:16 PM EST
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Alban Berg's "Lulu" is one of the most fascinating works in operatic repertoire. It is a work that almost did not make it to the stage, but has held it since the completed version of the work bowed in 1979.

The Metropolitan Opera recently revived the opera in a new production and the performance conducted on Nov. 24 was one to remember.

William Kentridge previously directed Shostakovich's "The Nose," utilizing video projections to ample effect. He is back to the same visual approach in "Lulu" but he is arguably at an even better level her, his imagery working beautifully with the music and dramatic context. Early on in the opera, Lulu gets painted and that very image because a leitmotif, constantly returning, but often with variations of expression. Oftentimes, this image highlights one character's obsession with Lulu, while at others it serves as a "close-up" of sorts, emphasizing the title character's differing emotions in a way that is directly accessible to audience members sitting far from the stage. At one point early in the work, Lulu grabs a stack of papers off a desk and hurls them around; immediately, the projections follow suit, almost creating the sense of cut to an extreme close-up of those very papers flying around.

The images all come in ink, often leaving a trail that surprisingly reminds the viewer of blood. Of course, those familiar with the plot will know the significance, emphasizing Lulu's tragedy ultimately initiated the moment we first see her on stage.

Be warned: the projections are non-stopped and they come at the viewer in quick waves, making it truly impossible to catch everything going on in this complex and wild opera.

The distribution of space on stage is brilliant. The first act takes place with stage left covered by a panel, with all of the action taking place on stage right; the final scene is situated in the middle of the stage. The second act reverses the trend with stage right opened up and stage left covered by the panel. The third act starts with the center of the stage wide open before the final scene has the panels covering the entirety of the stage (with a small space on stage left open for the set). It is a seemingly simple strategy, but it emphasizes the shifty nature of the work and its endless variation.

Staircases played a prominent role in the visual vocabulary, each acting containing a more vertiginous set of stairs, emphasizing not only Lulu's descent, but that of all the other major characters.

Costuming is also masterfully delivered with paler colors dominating the proceedings. Only Dr. Schon wears a bright neon color, setting him apart from the rest of the cast members. There are others that are also wearing "flashier" tints, but they generally blend in with the overpowering scenery. The choice to make Schon "pop" in that manners, emphasizes his key role in the plot as both the facilitator of Lulu, perhaps even the savior of her life, and then ultimately, when he "transforms" into Jack the Ripper, the man who ends her life.

In the case of the main character, eroticism is expressed in abstract manners. Lulu has papers suggesting a bare breast and even covering her face in a "mask" for example. This combination of the abstract on a real person combines to express the notion that Lulu is far from a concrete human being. She is also an idea and combined they create an ideal for the men that are endlessly obsessed with her. The combination also emphasizes the notion that obtaining Lulu completely for oneself is unattainable as there will always be something missing in the exchange, something that can be felt, seen, touched or enjoyed for the person of interest.

In the title role was Marlis Peterson, singing her final run of the opera that she has built a strong reputation on. Her Lulu is filled with rambunctious energy, unafraid of throwing desirous glances at her latest flirtation. One visual motif that really emphasized her characters power was the constant standing on furniture to elevate Lulu over other characters during potent exchanges. In the third act, her confrontation with the Marquis was marked by her standing on a seat when taking the upperhand but finding herself sitting whenever the balance shifted toward him.

There were other physical manifestations of Lulu's power, particularly the use of her gaze (an inversion of the prominent male gaze in this opera) and sensual movement with her legs. Her entire exchange with Dr. Schon at the end of the opening act was built on these movements (in addition to her standing on furniture), the "snake" (as she is called at the start of the work) slowly reeling her victim in with the simple power of eye contact and body position. At one point she threw herself all over him, her legs even wrapping themselves around him, an expression of sexual domination if there ever was one. While the outcome seemed clear cut from the outset, Johan Reuter's Dr. Schon proved to add the tension, constantly looking away from Lulu while paralyzed on his knees, almost knowing that she would overcome him. In this scene, Lulu's voice gains in ascendancy while his withered away despite trying its utmost to overpower hers.

Peterson was a true master in all respects, her voice up to the Olympian challenges of Berg's score. There are some truly imposing passages littered throughout the work that demand Lulu's high range to come into play repeatedly in very vulnerable passages of the soprano high register. Peterson did not show any signs of hesitation, every single sound oozing out with aplomb. There was a sense however that the character's power diminished throughout the evening, with Lulu growing rather desperate in the third act as her entire world slowly but surely crashes around her. In the final scene, Peterson's Lulu was no "snake" but a truly vulnerable woman who no longer has her way with men; now she is the one being thrown about and treated like filth. Even her body was covered up and she hunched over in the moments leading up to her demise.

While Peterson's character stood out for her imposing will, the remaining cast members created a world of weak willed humans, all to varying degrees. The drama came from how they were directed to deal with their weaknesses. Martin Winkler's Acrobat was the most vicious of the lot, making his joint appearance as the Animal Tamer all the more appropriate. Reuter's apparent weakness as Schon finds a contrasting arc as Jack the Ripper while Paul Groves also undergoes a similar transformation as the confused and ultimately pathetic painter that abuses Lulu as the African Prince in the final act.

As Alwa, the son of Schon, Daniel Brenna initiated his performance with a sense of composure, his singing measured and relaxed. But once his passion for Lulu started to take over, Brenna sang with increasingly unbridled passion, escalating with his eventual demise.

Susan Graham sang delicately throughout the night, expressing the dynamic of the besotted Countess Geschwitz's relationship with the title character. However by the end of the work, when her character delivers the final lines of the work, the singing was at its most vibrant, her voice pushed to its emotional brink, emphasizing the character's horrid circumstance.

In the pit, Derrick Inouye was a marvel in the pit. Considering the complexity of the score, there can never be enough detail in this written piece about how revelatory this performance was. Yet there were a few sticking points. The death motif at the end of the confrontation between Schon and the Painter was haunting in the rhythmic figure's gradual growth, making the listener keen to the motif's return thereafter. The interlude in the middle of Act 2 was swift in its delivery, its palindromic structure expertly rendered. In an opera so excruciatingly difficult for all involved it was astounding just to listen to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra sound so confident and consistent, something that is surprisingly not always the case in "less complex" scores.

There is simply not enough to write here about how wondrous this new Met Opera "Lulu" is. There are a number of fascinating details about the production, the music and the performers that this writer could have continued elaborating on, but the reality is that it must be experienced to be fully appreciated and explored.

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