Lulu – Opera in a prologue and three acts to a libretto by the composer after the plays Erdgeist and Die Büsche der Pandora by Frank Wedekind [performed with Act III realised by Friedrich Cerha; sung in German with English subtitles]
Lulu – Julia Migenes
Countess Geschwitz – Evelyn Lear
Alwa – Kenneth Riegel
Painter / African Prince – Frank Little
Dr Schön / Jack the Ripper – Franz Mazura
Animal Trainer / Acrobat – Lenus Carlson
Schigolch – Andrew Foldi
Wardrobe Mistress / Schoolboy / Page – Hilda Harris
Prince / Manservant / Marquis – Nico Castel
Theatre Manager / Banker – Ara Berberian
Fifteen-Year-Old Girl – Betsy Norden
Her Mother – Batyah Godfrey Ben-David
Designer – Nedda Casei
Journalist – John Darrenkamp
Servant – James Courtney
Physician / Professor – Peter Sliker
Clown – Abraham Marcus
Police Commissioner – Howard Sponseller
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
John Dexter – Production
Jocelyn Herbert – Set & Costume design
Gil Wechsler – Lighting design
Recorded 20 December 1980 at The Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York
Brian Large – Video direction
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: December 2011
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
Duration: 2 hours 55 minutes
On a number of levels, Frank Wedekind’s ill-starred heroine can be seen as a photographic negative of Voltaire’s Candide. World-weary instead of naïve, fatalistic rather than optimistic, Lulu’s feet of clay lend the character a vulnerability that her resilient Gallic counterpart does not possess. Like Voltaire’s ingénu, though, she is the object, rather than the subject, of the drama that engulfs her. Lulu is a mutable figure, all things to all men; the eternal feminine subverted into a universal object of desire. For all her chutzpah (not to say her propensity for murder), she is the archetypical female victim.
These characteristics emerge triumphantly in the interpretation of Julia Migenes, video-recorded more than three decades ago at New York’s Met and now released, digitally spruced-up and shining, for posterity. This expanded revival of John Dexter’s 1977 production marked America’s first encounter with the newly-unveiled third Act of Berg’s opera (it had been seen in Paris the previous year under Pierre Boulez) and James Levine delivers a sweeping account of the score that effortlessly incorporates the ‘new’ material into the architectural fabric of his reading. Indeed, given the warmth of the conductor’s advocacy it is surprising that Sony’s documentation fails to acknowledge Friedrich Cerha’s seamless completion of Berg’s unfinished score.
The opera charts Lulu’s rise and descent in roughly two equal parts. Lulu’s male suitors have an unfortunate habit of dying on her, whether from murder, suicide or natural causes; yet only when force majeure strikes in the form of a seedy banker (who fails to appreciate that the value of investments can go down as well as up) does her picaresque life spiral into penury, misery and tragedy. It is a darkly comic, satirical tale, told through the kind of heightened realism that helped define the German Expressionist movement; but Dexter’s production – revived at the Met as recently as 2010 – misses the point entirely. Jocelyn Herbert’s settings are so screamingly literal (uncharacteristically from this forward-thinking designer) that for much of the opera we could be watching La traviata rather than Berg’s mordant fable.
Still, where creativity is lacking, clarity is king; and for many viewers this production will be the ideal introduction to what remains a ticklish opera for the uninitiated. It helps that the camera loves Migenes every bit as much as the microphone does, and Lulu’s tortured journey is brilliantly communicated via skills that anticipate the performance she was to give four years later in Francesco Rosi’s film of Bizet’s Carmen. Migenes has the knack of acting simultaneously to the rear balcony and the close-up camera, and by playing against the score’s astringency she unearths rhythmic power and gripping passion from its forbidding pages.
If the temperature drops when Migenes is not present, that is a weakness more of the opera than the performances. Berg’s intensity is blood-red when Lulu is centre-stage but during her rare absences both the music and the narrative line sometimes drift into routine exposition. Of the carefully chosen supporting cast, Kenneth Riegel (Alwa) and Franz Mazura (Doctor Schön / Jack the Ripper) make the greatest impact. Both are veterans of Boulez’s first Paris production of the three-Act Lulu (and his DG recording), and their authority shines through. Evelyn Lear, although vocally underpowered, contrasts the hauteur of Countess Geschwitz with her character’s desperate infatuation with Lulu, and there are notable contributions from Frank Little as the Painter, Lulu’s first husband, and especially from Andrew Foldi as Schigolch, the ambiguous angel-of-death figure whose telling appearance at significant moments is rendered inconsequential by the prosaic staging.
The technical improvements that have been made to this old telecast are remarkable, as is the audio restoration. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is recorded closely but faithfully, and the release as a whole provides a valuable preservation of Levine’s impassioned reading. It was recorded just five days before Christmas, and while I can think of more apt ideas for a festive treat I can imagine few that would offer such consistent rewards. While the Met audience rarely seems to have caught on to the dark comedy of Berg’s material (surtitles had not yet arrived in 1980), it certainly understood the significance of the event and responded to it with unbridled enthusiasm.