Composer: Alban Berg
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Production: John Dexter
Director: Gregory Keller
Lulu: Marlis Petersen
Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper: James Morris
Countess Gerschwitz: Anne Sophie von Otter
Alwa: Gary Lehman
They say that it is not over until the fat lady sings, and I guess Patricia Racette was just not plump enough to end my Met season three weeks ago as last week my long-time friend and occasional Met companion Charles surprised me with an unexpected but most welcome early birthday present: his subscription ticket for Alban Berg's deliciously scandalous Lulu, which I'd have the pleasure to watch in the company of our mutual friend and Met veteran Martin. That sure helped soften the blow of being about to gain yet another year.
Little, however, did I know that getting to that precious seat would be as just suspenseful as the most convoluted opera with plot twists involving a lost ticket, an earlier than usual performance starting time, a consequently dangerously late bus departure time (complete with uncooperative luggage compartment door, a detour in downtown Baltimore, a long stop-over in White Marsh and crawling traffic to get to the Lincoln Tunnel), a wrongly labelled pass and, to set this quintessential case of Murphy's Law in motion, a mild case of food poisoning the afternoon before. But what at times looked like mission impossible had a happy ending, and we eventually took our seats with a full 5 minutes to spare!
Lulu was appealing to me for several reasons, the main ones being the sterling cast and the prospect of watching four hours of unchecked decadence by following the consummate femme fatale in Vienna, Paris and London as she was leaving a trail of death (natural, suicide and murder) and ruin behind her while still managing to remain above it all, at least for a while.
After an unnecessary circus-inspired introduction, things started in earnest in a painter's workshop where Lulu's irresistible sex appeal did not waste time manifesting itself through her magnetic seduction of the poor artist, unwillingly causing the death of her husband in the process (Never mind that she was there to get her portrait done for her lover). And it went all downhill from there in splendid decadence (or was it decadent splendour?), all the way to the dreadful London garret in which she ended up turning tricks for miserly sums before meeting her ghastly fate. As the black and blacker story unfolded, I couldn't help but marvel at the stunning Art Nouveau sets and tastefully sumptuous costumes, all the more dazzling in contrast with Lulu's bleak tale of shameless manipulation and debauched laissez-faire.
It is a tough job to impersonate a central character deprived of the slightest bit of any human quality, to say the last, but Marlis Petersen did it very well, confidently exuding brazen sexuality and detached amorality as if her power was truly outside of her control. You may not have wanted to make her your new BFF, but you couldn't take your eyes off of her either. The German soprano had obviously dwelled head-first into the challenging part and made it her very own thanks to her natural, charismatic beauty and her supple, assured voice. As Dr Schön, the only man that Lulu ever loved, James Morris brought his reassuring presence and compelling voice to the part, even as he was repeatedly falling into helpless submission. Anne Sophie von Otter made a strong impression in the shorter role of the Countess who never ceased to pine for Lulu, her ever-elusive "angel". All the other cast members fulfilled their roles with remarkable competence and helped make those mostly grim four hours surprisingly spell-binding.
Beside a sordid story, the singers also had to contend with a unique, ground-breaking score that uses the twelve-tone technique pioneered by Alban Berg's teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. Enough said that there were no recognizable melodies, or any melody at all for that matter, which actually can be a blessing as the audience did not break into applause after each aria. Yesterday, the spectators were mostly attentive and respectful, although more than a few chuckles predictably responded to the line that "Bankers know their business, dear", a reply uttered right before the Junfrau Cable Railway shares took a deadly plunge at the stock exchange, bringing massive ruin to all.
The Met's beloved James Levine, who had been instrumental in bringing Lulu to the Met in the 1970s and had missed only three performances ever since, had to withdraw due to his on-going health issues. But Fabio Luis, who is decidedly becoming a familiar figure to the Met audience after replacing also maestro Levine at the last minute for Tosca on top of his regularly scheduled appearances, conducted the brilliant as usual orchestra with his trademark gusto. His dedication has actually been rewarded and he has recently been nominated the Met's new principal guest conductor. Good for us!
Marlis Petersen is not fat either, but I guess my Met season is over regardless as it was officially ending with Armida yesterday evening. All the more to look forward to next season...