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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Metropolitan Opera


  Ph: Ken Howard

In 2002, when Alban Berg’s Lulu was last performed at the Metropolitan Opera, a critic for The New York Times wrote that the “slender lot” of the work’s admirers “looked forlorn” in the house’s “vast caverns.”
What a difference eight years makes. When the 12-tone opera – which, as that critic noted, has been a distant second to the composer’s Wozzeck in Bergian popularity – returned to the Met last Saturday afternoon for its season premiere, the nearly 4,000-seat auditorium appeared almost sold out.
Many if not most were there to see Marlis Petersen, the German coloratura soprano who received acclaim for her performances as Lulu in Europe and at the Chicago Lyric Opera. The Met’s audience quickly learned that the critical praise had been more than highly deserved.
Petersen’s voice soars in passion and clarity, in emotion and lucidity, handling the difficult score with seeming ease, as she so convincingly portrays a woman whose sole reason for existence is to attract, control and seduce men – “joie de vivre incarnate,” yet at the same time a “soulless beast,” a woman “created to spread misfortune.” She can drive a man to suicide if she rejects him, a husband to a fatal heart attack when he discovers she is unfaithful. And she has no compunctions about murder, if it becomes necessary to save her luscious skin.
Petersen’s voice, her body, her movements are sensual, erotic, charming – just plain sexy – whether she is cajoling, flirtatious, cheery, teasing an admirer, allowing him to grab her breasts, or wrapping her long, willowy, desirable, naked legs around him in a near-coital embrace. The soprano herself – most recently seen this spring as Ophélie in the Met’s new production of Hamlet – is a strikingly beautiful woman, making it effortless for any audience member to believe the effect she might have on a man – or a woman.
When, escaped from prison after murdering a husband, she sings out, “Oh freedom – dear God in heaven” (in German of course), her ardor is frightening, and totally convincing. Freedom to do anything she wants, whatever the effect on others, is her raison d’ être. (A silent film during a musical interlude generally shows what happens after the murder, but that wasn’t part of Saturday’s performance.)
In the chilling final scene, when Lulu’s amorality has doomed her to the depths of prostitution in London, where she will be killed by Jack the Ripper, Petersen is the essence of calm resignation and quiet despair.
The rest of the cast is, without exception, excellent. The Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, her singing affecting and radiant, excels as the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, who loyally follows and yearns for Lulu, even though she knows that the woman she loves, “if she saw me lying in my own blood, wouldn’t shed a tear for me.” Not for a minute do you doubt the countess’s devotion to her female friend. The Met veteran James Morris is in fine voice and fine dramatic form, both as Dr. Schön, the husband she murders, and Jack the Ripper, the prostitute’s client who gets even.
Praise also goes to the other males who covet her: Gary Lehman as Alwa, the doctor’s son; Michael Schade, as both the painter (who kills himself for love of Lulu) and another client, an African prince; Bradley Garvin, as the acrobat and the animal tamer; and Gwynne Howell as Schigolch, an old man who may be a previous lover – or perhaps her father.
Lulu is a James Levine specialty. Until Saturday, the Met’s music director had conducted all but three of the work’s previous 33 performances at the opera house. With Levine incapacitated, the company’s newly named principal guest conductor, Fabio Luisi, took over and did Levine proud – focusing on the score’s almost-melodic moments without scanting the eloquently modern nature of the music, giving the orchestra a lush, fiery, compelling – and at times haunting – sound.
Berg died in 1937, before he had completed the score for the third act of the opera, whose libretto was adapted by him from Frank Wedekind’s turn of the 20th century plays Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Berg’s wife, Helene, resisted its completion, but after she died in 1976, the composer Friedrich Cerha finished it in 1977.
The Met’s production, created by the late John Dexter, premiered in 1977 using the incomplete version of the opera. The full three acts were first performed at the Met in 1980. Dexter’s production, now 33 years old, holds up beautifully &nd


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