My Favorite Opera DVDs: “Lulu”

Many more years will have to pass before there is any consensus as the 20th century’s “greatest” opera. But those who have thoroughly acquainted themselves with the three-act version of Alban Berg’s Lulu (available in that form only since 1979) know that this incredible work must be given strong consideration. Berg’s other opera, Wozzeck, would certainly be in the running as well; but as powerful, primal and innovative as Wozzeck is, Lulu strikes even deeper into the fabric of human behavior and the invention in its score never ceases to amaze.

The gold standard for Lulu videos is one that’s been out there for a while – Graham Vick’s 1996 Glyndebourne production starring Christine Schafer, Wolfgang Schone and Kathryn Harries, with Andrew Davis leading the London Philharmonic. Rarely has such a stellar cast been assembled for a work of art still very much in need of all the talented advocacy that can be mustered to plead its case. Lulu is very complex; I first heard it in 1980 and fully expect to be hearing new things in it for the rest of my life. Yes, it is a 12-tone composition, which makes it a nonstarter for many. But leave aside Berg’s tone rows (and his many diversions from Schoenbergian dogma) and just listen to this music; it is some of the most expressive ever written. And be thankful that there is a small but dedicated core of musicians willing to master the fiendish demands of Lulu. The great Evelyn Lear once recalled her first encounter with the score in 1960: “I almost dropped dead, because it was the most difficult thing I’d ever seen in my life.”

Berg had already assumed a high place in the ranks of early 20th century progressives by the time he first embarked on Lulu, in 1928. But the scope of this piece is so far beyond anything attempted at the time as to render its creation one of the great milestones in opera history. Most of Lulu had been completed by the time the Nazis came to power in 1933, but Berg nonetheless expected to have little trouble attracting performances – somehow unaware that the mostly repulsive characters populating his opera could serve as poster children for Hitler’s railing against the bourgeoisie and decadent intellectualism. The obstacles that cropped up led him to set aside completing the Act III orchestration and prepare instead the almost entirely instrumental Lulu-Suite and his transcendentally beautiful Violin Concerto, dedicated to the memory of his friend Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler. He ran out of time to finish Lulu, dying of blood poisoning on December 24, 1935.

Berg’s naivete regarding the prospects for a Lulu production in Germany is curious, considering that the Nazis had already denounced Wozzeck. The libretto for Lulu (adapted by Berg from two Frank Wedekind plays that also formed the basis of the G.W. Pabst film Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks) displays a high degree of sophistication about human affairs – eschewing sentimentality altogether and pulling no punches about the depths to which people will sink to get ahead or feed their obsessions. One would think he would have entertained no illusions about artistic freedom under Germany’s new fascist rulers.

The combination of that sophistication and Berg’s toweringly creative music is on display right from the start in Lulu. Act I, in fact, may well be the most substantial first act in all of opera. We are plunged into an intense, multilayered “family drama” unlike any other – complete with a fatal heart attack, four great obsessions, a suicide and a jilting. The music is gripping and beautiful, and the story fascinating — quite contemporary in the without-apology manner in which its characters chase their destinies. Lulu embodies the archetype of the sexually alluring woman upon which man after man projects his most deeply felt fantasies – and frequently pays with his life. Yet Lulu herself is detached, amused by their antics and focused primarily on her own needs; she is “passive in the hands of Fate,” as annotator Dewi-Davies Jones once put it, given to impatient, sometimes sarcastic responses to the grandiose pronouncements and rhapsodizing by the men who regard her as the crown jewel of the universe.

The Lulu of this video, Christine Schafer, is not a striking beauty like Louise Brooks, but she emanates a subtle erotic power that easily carries her character along. Schafer’s singing is magnificent and seemingly effortless in one of opera’s most supremely difficult soprano roles, replete with coloratura demands and long stretches of music where the vocal line and orchestra move quite independently. Schafer is also a very fine actress; her total confidence and ease on stage renders Lulu a living, organic piece of art – not a pre-war curio trotted out for historical purposes. The other principal cast members are fabulous as well. Wolfgang Schone fully captures the exasperation and defeat that overtakes editor-in-chief Dr. Schon, unable to sever his ties to the destructive Lulu. Schone also shines in his second role as Jack the Ripper, depicting the banality of evil as he haggles with Lulu over her prostitute’s fee prior to knifing her to death in a London garret. Kathryn Harries is superb as Countess Geschwitz, a strong-minded lesbian who allows her life to be ruined by the belief that Lulu actually loves her. David Kuebler gives a moving portrayal of Alwa, the hapless composer transfixed by Lulu and unable to learn from the fate of his father, Dr. Schon.

The conducting and playing here is of the highest order, a truly committed performance by all concerned. Andrew Davis proves himself to be a top-drawer Bergian, syncing the dynamics of this richly detailed score perfectly with the often subtle proceedings on stage. Lulu can be an exhausting undertaking for an orchestra, but the London Philharmonic players never lose focus. The huge build just before the murder of the anti-heroine, beginning with Jack the Ripper’s “Wir brauchen kein Licht, der Mond scheint,” is a marvel of power and pathos.

Graham Vick’s production is beautifully compact and expressive, using a single walled set with a retractable staircase and a series of revolving floor surfaces to accommodate the action. One of his finest touches is the first appearance of Schafer onstage, rising like an Eve outcast from Eden while clinging to a massive globular light fixture as Donald Maxwell, the giddy Animal Tamer, recites Lulu’s negative attributes.

But, by any measure, the star of Lulu is of course Alban Berg. By the time he came to this piece, he had long since completed his synthesis of the harmonic vocabulary inherited from Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, absorbed every aspect of Schoenberg’s thinking that he was prepared to take on board, and was moving with the most confidence he could muster in his short life. The complexities he had chosen to deal with as a composer – from serialism to numerology to new uses for the concept of the leitmotif – are deployed with awesome mastery throughout Lulu. A vast amount of terrain is covered – both in the story and the array of emotions depicted in the score — and Berg’s ability to hold the listener’s interest for more than three hours while speaking a highly unusual musical language nearly as modern today as when it was written is miraculous.

For me, a crucial measure of the potency and creativity that goes into opera writing is the music that accompanies recitative-like passages. Many composers mark time during such episodes, knowing they will not be listened to closely by most who hear them – all the better for pumping up excitement for the spotlight arias, which are much more likely to be remembered. Thus, second-rate music frequently dominates these often-lengthy stretches – and the offenders have included some of the most revered composers around. Berg refused to do that in Wozzeck and took the same stance with Lulu, which happens to be twice as long. Lulu is so complex that it takes some time to gauge Berg’s success in writing such “background” music. A much faster way to get a handle on it is to listen to the half-hour-long Lulu-Suite. In it we hear some of the opera’s most significant music shorn of nearly all its vocal lines – and, boy, is it powerful. There are many good recordings of the suite, but let me recommend Pierre Boulez’s with the New York Philharmonic, dating from 1979 (Sony Classics).

Then go buy this video. It’s great!

Alban Berg: “Lulu” — with Christine Schafer, Wolfgang Schone, Kathryn Harries, David Kuebler, Stephan Drakulic, Norman Bailey, Donald Maxwell, Jonathan Veira, Patricia Bardon, Neil Jenkins; Andrew Davis conducting the London Philharmonic. 1996. 183 minutes. Kultur  D2253


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