by William Braun
Ever since it was new in 1977, John Dexter's Met Opera production of Berg's Lulu has been one of the few truly successful examples of music drama. On a good night, it could seem that the music was reaching out of the scenery, that the singers were conjuring the instrumental sounds, that the score was inducing the movements of the actors onstage. When the production returned this season on May 8, there was some question as to whether it would still provide real theatrical catharsis. Dexter, of course, has been dead for twenty years (the staging is now maintained by Gregory Keller), and some of Jocelyn Herbert's scenery, a model for the presentation of an intimate opera in a huge auditorium, is looking tatty. But with the arrival of a stupendous new soprano and a virtuoso new conductor, the show was still, after all this time, a major success.
Marlis Petersen, the Lulu, has mastered all the many difficulties in the score — a feat in itself — but she used this merely as a starting point. If Berg wrote a melisma, she found the underlying theatrical imperative. (The final time Lulu sings "I don't know," the flurry of notes represents impatience.) If Berg wrote a rest in the middle of a word, if he wrote a difficult ascending line that rises to the stratosphere while getting softer, she made sense of it. She even took most of Berg's high options. The arc of the character's life was carefully delineated. She rightly made the casino scene Lulu's crisis point. After being so confident of her power over men in each of the five previous scenes that she took it for granted, she now realized that she would fail. Petersen understands that Lulu is not a slut — otherwise her breakdown in the casino would make no sense — and she realizes that Lulu, as Berg wrote her, should not have even a hint of toughness. The final line of Act II, "Isn't this the divan where your father bled to death?" is marked by Berg to be sung "casually." Some sopranos try to make a meal of it instead, but Petersen got the point. Yet the whole time, for all her accuracy and dramatic involvement, she sang beautifully. She had a triumph.
Fabio Luisi, not long after his appointment to follow Valery Gergiev as principal guest conductor at the Met, offered unfailingly clear stick technique combined with real warmth in the orchestral tone, the essence of Bergian qualifications. Luisi was particularly interested in exploring the instrumental colors underneath Alwa's musings in the theater dressing room and underneath Countess Geschwitz's suicide monologue in Act III. He was spectacularly attuned to the return of the atmosphere of the Lulu–Alwa duet, originally aborted in the first scene of Act II, when it resumed in the second. He kept Lulu's "Lied" integrated within the whole scene in which it appears by choosing an unusually brisk tempo. The solo musicians shone (although the important piano part was too subdued). The saxophonist should have been commended by name but was uncredited in the program book.
Lulu has almost always had fine Met interpreters across the board. Anne Sofie von Otter was yet another fine Geschwitz, one with a good sense of humor to go along with her silky vocalism. Her disgust at the Athlete's behavior was a highlight. She brought tender hope, not despair, to her penultimate monologue. And Ginger Costa-Jackson upheld depth of casting with her stone-faced, seen-it-all wardrobe mistress, her hyperactive schoolboy and her befuddled casino page. Gary Lehman was an individualistic Alwa, singing simply and directly. He didn't force his high notes, a nice metaphor for the repression in this character, but he had real power when Alwa finally broke.
Dr. Schön, whose story this really is, was sung by James Morris. He certainly knew the role, but in a house where memories of Donald Gramm and Franz Mazura are strong, his interpretation was superficial. Morris's face tended to be blank, and he came across as glib, even amiable. There was hardly any anger, let alone agony. But these same qualities made him a chilling Jack the Ripper. Bradley Garvin used his great height and a fake pot belly to good effect as the Athlete. Berg expected the little song of the Marquis to be sung better than Graham Clark thinks it should be done; this is the most important melody in Act III.
There have been adjustments to the production. The slide show in the Act II interlude is gone now. That is fine, since it would look awfully quaint today. But Dexter surely would never have countenanced the staging of the end of Act I, where Lulu immediately mounted Dr. Schön after he finished writing the letter she dictated. But supertitles now make the abundant legitimate comic business clear. (And the banker's line about how reliable he is got a huge laugh.) Yet it bears noting that, for whatever reason, the audience was the most attentive one I've sat with at the Met in twenty-nine years.