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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lulu: Opera in 3 Acts (orchestration completed by Freidrich Cerha)
Marlis Petersen, soprano (Lulu); Daniela Sindram, mezzo soprano (Countess Geschwitz); Rachael Wilson, mezzo soprano (a theatrical dresser/a schoolboy/a valet); Christian Rieger, baritone (the doctor/the banker/the professor); Rainer Trost, tenor (the painter/the negro); Bo Skhovus, baritone (Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper); Matthias Klink, tenor (Alwa); Martin Winkler, baritone (an animal tamer/an athlete); Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, tenor (the prince/the manservant/the marquis); Christoph Stephinger, baritone (the theatre manager); Nicholas Reinke (the police commissioner); Elsa Benoit, soprano (a fifteen-year-old girl); Cornelia Wulkopf, mezzo soprano (her mother); Heike Grötzinger, mezzo soprano (a woman artist); John Carpenter, (a journalist); Leonard Bernad, bass (a manservant); Pavlo Hunka, bass baritone (Schigolch)
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Kirill Petrenko
Dmitri Tcherniakov (stage direction and sets); Elena Zaytseva (costumes); Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting design); Malte Krasting (dramaturgy)
rec. live, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, May 2015
Picture format: NTSC 16:9, Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1, Region code: 0 (worldwide), Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Korean, Japanese
BELAIR BAC129 [2 DVDs: 182 mins]

There is no shortage of recordings of Lulu, on which Berg worked from 1929 to 1935 but left incomplete at the time of his death. This two-act version was performed in 1937 and for the next four decades that was all audiences heard and all that was recorded. Only in 1979 was Friedrich Cerha's orchestration of Act III premiered and since then it has been accepted as the authoritative version.

Berg adapted both Wedekind’s two Lulu plays Erdgeist, 1895 and Die Büchse der Pandora, 1904. These are studies in passion, exploitation and self-knowledge - or its absence. This video focuses not on the experience of going to the opera, the shots of the audience are few, instead we are immersed in the opera itself. The set is striking. It is modern and intentionally sterile: a matrix of poles aligned in a wide grid - like large barless cages or cubicles with semi-reflective perspex/glass to suggest isolation or at least compartmentalisation. Onto one of these transparent walls Lulu’s outline is drawn to represent the portrait for which she ‘sits’ at the start of Act I. The grid - seen in elevation, of course - dominates throughout the film because of the necessarily greater emphasis on close-up. Simple, flexible chairs with one-piece tubular legs are virtually the only other scenery.

The otherwise open stage is lit alternately in a steel blue and straw light olive-green, like subdued khaki. Such simplicity communicates something of the hothouse atmosphere in which Lulu lived her tragic life. And at the same time it focuses the viewers' concentration. A visual insistence on pointedness, obsessive single-minded destructiveness complements Berg’s usually stark and expressively vehement score. At the same time, such visual contrasts underline in colour and movement how distorted and ultimately deviant are the values of Lulu and those with whom she interacts. All this in ways that reflect Berg’s extraordinary music. Changes in lighting, for example, are immediate and simple. Props do not abound. Spectacle is minimised. Honest acting conveys the febrile intensity of almost everyone involved. Yet at the same time, the manners, mannerisms and movement of the performers is real, and grippingly so, with cigars, antics, realistic body language and matter-of-fact gestures. It all serves to support Adorno’s comment that Lulu is “…one of those works that reveals the extent of its quality the longer and more deeply one immerses oneself in it.” It’s as though everyone in the opera is engaged on bringing about the same tragic end yet at the same time dutifully living their own lives.

The costumes are plain, suggesting rather than imitating modernity. Clean lines, unadorned colours, movement (often synchronised) and slow step-by-step dancing (as in the interlude between Scenes 1 and 2 in Act I) convey a certain mannerism which does not distract from the main themes of the work.

The principals sing with projection and vigour, yet interact - as they should - more with one another than with the audience. Soprano Marlis Petersen is superb as Lulu. She has just the right balance of haughtiness and nonchalance, self-serving flirtatiousness and - above all - disdain for those she attracts. The necessary eroticism, tantalising behaviour and appearance of Lulu and those whom she ‘influences’ is well-handled. She obviously detests being mauled (which is often), though relishes her control over men. The male roles exude a sense of the pathetic and half-shod deviousness and desperation. Indeed, a significant amount of the action has the singers sitting or lying on the floor. Other singer-performers who deserve positive mention include baritone Christian Rieger, tenor Rainer Trost, baritone Bo Skhovus, and tenor Matthias Klink.

The orchestral playing is sensitive yet urgent. Kirill Petrenko clearly understands the need for subtlety. Lulu is a tragedy which implies solutions, alternatives, salvation: the love theme is perhaps the best example of this reflexiveness. Similarly the musical symmetry which was so important to Berg, is respected in the analogues between Lulu’s ascendancy and squalor in Acts One then Three with - at Berg’s specific instructions - actors/singers taking corresponding dual roles accordingly.

Berg’s Lulu is a complex opera; for some who are new to it, it may be somewhat inaccessible given the subtleties and layers which examine the themes of desire, possessiveness, crime, jealousy and lack of self-knowledge in the way they do. This present staging and performance, with impressive and characterful acting as well as playing are entirely convincing and ought actively to pull in a new audience. The staging is very different from what Berg imagined, with tiger-skin sofas, a fireplace and luxurious fin de siècle Paris apartment. Act III is distinctly more crowded with characters than the earlier acts and has a greater sense of urgency. This is yet another example of how the production supports Berg’s musical drive. Those who know and love the opera will find this a mature, persuasive, appropriate and well-conceived production.

Above all, though, it is the performance quality, musically and theatrically, that carry this set. It is definitely a Lulu of our times. Petrenko has produced a performance to enthrall and delight us with its lyricism, wonderful grasp of tension and insight into what motivates the characters. A wonderful binding of everything to the score.
Mark Sealey



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