Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lulu (1935, unfinished version) [135.00]
Evelyn Lear (soprano) - Lulu; Paul Schöffler (baritone) - Dr Schön; Rudolf Schock (tenor) - Alwa; Kurt Equiluz (tenor) - Painter; Gisela Litz (mezzo) - Countess Geschwitz; Josef Knapp (baritone) - Schigolch; Hans Braun (baritone) - Rodrigo; Margarete Ast (contralto) - Schoolboy; Peter Klein (tenor) - Prince; Hilde Konetzni (mezzo) - Wardrobe mistress; Ludwig Welter (bass) - Theatre director; Siegfried Rudolf Frese (tenor) - Servant; Alois Pernestorfer (bass) - Animal trainer; Guido Wieland (bass) - Dr Goll; Toni Birkmeyer (silent) - Jack the Ripper
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Karl Böhm
rec. Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 9 June 1962
Sound: PCM Mono
Subtitle Languages: DE (Original Language), GB, FR, ES, IT
Region Code: 0
ARTHAUS DVD 101 687 [135.00]
I first made the acquaintance of the score of Lulu through the 1968 recording conducted by Karl Böhm, also with Evelyn Lear in the title role. This DVD enshrines a performance given six years earlier, and indeed records the Austrian première of the work given in 1962. Böhm was one of the most annoying of the major German conductors of the period, because of his apparently overwhelming desire to set his own mark on operatic scores by subjecting them to often massive cutting. He even abridged Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth in 1964, although his later performances which formed the basis for his recording restored the omitted passage. In the works of his mentor Richard Strauss he made cuts in his première recording of Daphne - a score which was dedicated to him - and his use of the scissors in pieces such as Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten became more and more extreme as time went on. Berg’s use of closed musical forms defied his editorial zeal, so here in this Lulu we are given the score complete - or as complete as was possible at the time.
Berg left Lulu unfinished at the time of his death, with only two passages of the Third Act completed and revised in full score as part of the Lulu Suite although fortunately these included the very end of the opera. Although the score was almost totally complete in sketch form, his widow forbade anybody from attempting to put the final Act into a performable condition. It was not until after her death that Pierre Boulez finally managed to mount the opera in its entirety in 1979, using an edition by Friedrich Cerha. The latter edition has become the standard for all subsequent productions, and quite rightly too. Cerha manages to produce a very convincing imitation of Berg’s style, and the plot benefits enormously from being given at full length. In the middle of the Second Act Berg wrote a palindromic interlude, which turns the plot like a pivot; the first part of the opera shows Lulu’s rise to riches and fame, and the second mirrors that in its depiction of her fall, degradation and murder. There is even a deliberate parody of the first half in the final scene, where each of Lulu’s clients as a prostitute is sung by the same singers as the lovers who have ‘helped’ her during the first part. Without these scenes the palindromic interlude is misplaced, and the proportions of the whole are maimed. Sadly, that was the only version available to Böhm at the time, and so that is what we are given here.
Of the seven rival versions of Lulu on DVD, all use the Cerha completion. Oddly enough the available versions do not include Patrice Chéreau’s première production of the full score which Boulez conducted, although this was televised at the time and really deserves to be in the catalogues. Given the plethora of complete recordings, this DVD is valuable purely as a historical document - although it is a pretty good one, and gives us the score as it was always performed during the first 44 years of its existence. That said, it cannot be pretended that in 1962 players and singers were as comfortable with Berg’s often extreme demands on their techniques as they are today. The orchestral playing, although it sounds pretty accurate and was clearly well rehearsed, is not such as to inspire confidence; and the recorded balance is such that even in the opening bars the smashing piano clusters are hardly audible.
The singers too are an oddly assorted bunch, combining veteran singers in the twilight of their careers with a batch of young stars in the making. In the latter category can be counted Evelyn Lear’s heroine, Kurt Equiluz as the painter, and Hans Braun as the athlete. In the former category we find Paul Schöffler as Doctor Schön (although not, as Berg intended, doubling as Jack the Ripper), Peter Klein as the Prince, Hilde Konetzni as the Wardrobe Mistress and Alois Pernestorfer as the Ringmaster. The last-named, best-known now for his Alberich in Furtwängler’s 1950 La Scala Ring, makes a pretty good impression in his opening scene, delivering his Sprechstimme with relish and displaying a still well-preserved voice. The other veterans, all Wagnerian singers of note during the 1950s, have plenty of volume and a strong sense of pitch to bring to their roles. They are assisted, too, by the young Otto Schenk’s production, with plenty of dramatic interplay in a naturalistic style. Schenk often failed to match this in many of his later stagings for the Met and elsewhere. These are real characters, and one can even feel a certain twinge of sympathy for the collection of egotistical monsters that Wedekind and Berg created on stage. One should also mention the baritone Josef Knapp as Lulu’s putative father. The role is often allocated to veteran Wagnerian basses but here we have a singer with a firm voice who can sustain his lines superbly but despite his white hair and moustache he hardly looks seventy years old.
In the title role Evelyn Lear is a model of corrupting and decaying glamour. In her succession of gorgeous dresses she imports an element of Elizabeth Taylor into the dramatic mix. She also sings her frequently stratospheric notes with a degree of poise which eludes many other singers who have essayed the role. Rudolf Schock too has a degree of glamour, despite looking like a rather seedy lounge lizard. Although his career was drawing towards its close he still has reserves of lyric strength which recall his glory days as Walther in Kempe’s recording of Die Meistersinger. Schöffler too had a claim to fame in that opera, and it cannot be pretended that his voice as heard here would any longer suit the role of Hans Sachs. However he still has plenty of power, even if he has to resort to shouting his notes rather more than Berg’s Sprechstimme would strictly permit.
No attempt is made to provide a visual stage presentation for the long interlude in Act Two (where Berg wanted a film to be screened to explain the action) or in the Variations. Instead, as during the other interludes, we are shown Böhm in the pit, conducting with economical gestures from a largely sedentary position. The balance of the orchestral playing is not good. The brass are sometimes ear-splittingly loud, and the strings often sound dismally thin and underpowered. This is particularly disturbing during the Variations. The recorded balance favours the singers on stage, but they frequently have to force their voices to ride the outbursts from the brass in the pit. During the final Adagio we are shown the Countess, the only really sympathetic character in the whole opera, who declaims some lines from earlier in the Act and then delivers her final lament over Lulu after the silent Jack the Ripper has killed her. Gisela Litz is very good dramatically and looks young enough to be a credible lover for Lulu, but one has heard this passage delivered with greater lyrical beauty.
There are no extras provided, but the subtitles - derived from Arthur Jacobs’s singing translation - are well-placed and informative despite a couple of errors - “to well” for “too well”, for example. There are one or two minor adjustments in the spoken dialogue, splitting up Lulu’s long narration of her escape from prison, but these are unimportant.
The opening of the DVD apologises for the quality of sound and picture, but the black-and-white images are clear enough and the sound is generally good although the applause at the end of Acts reveals a degree of wow and flutter that suggests some tape damage.
As a version of the original version of Lulu this is unique in the catalogue; and although those wanting a DVD of the opera will inevitably gravitate towards a complete rendition of the score, the quality of the performance is sufficient to justify a place for this historical recording in the catalogues. It has another advantage, too: unlike many of the modern issues, it adheres to Berg’s original scenario without the superfluous addition of any layers of confusing ‘conception’.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
As a version of the original version of Lulu this is unique in the catalogue.
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