by Steve Smith
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Among the many issues James Levine’s health problems have raised at the Metropolitan Opera, his withdrawal from the company’s latest revival of “Lulu,” Berg’s bleak final opera was probably not the most urgent. But “Lulu” is one of the pieces in the Met repertory most closely associated with Mr. Levine; before Saturday, he had conducted all but three presentations of the company’s efficient, intelligent John Dexter staging since its introduction in 1977.
Whether “Lulu” could be maintained at Mr. Levine’s customary high level was the subject of speculation, if not cause for alarm. The supremely accomplished performance of the opening matinee on Saturday, then, was a welcome note of reassurance that Mr. Levine’s eventual departure, whenever it comes, will not rob the company of its capacity to play his favored works honorably. The performance also showed that the Met chose wisely in appointing Fabio Luisi’s its new principal guest conductor.
To the beauty, clarity, coherence and power that Mr. Levine has always extracted from this knotty score, Mr. Luisi added a fleetness that boosted the work’s pitch-black humor. Passages of mounting suspense — the riveting preludes to the Painter’s suicide in the first act and Lulu’s own demise in the third, for example — had a furious energy. Yet the opera’s few tender moments, set to what seemed like profaned echoes of Wagner’s “Tristan,” had a warmth that was gripping. Projections customarily used to depict Lulu’s time in prison during one orchestral interlude were omitted here, but the vivid playing spoke volumes.
Any “Lulu” is equally dependent on the singer in the title role. In the German soprano Marlis Petersen, the Met had a charismatic, technically assured protagonist. That Ms. Petersen’s Lulu was rarely seductive in any genuine sense seemed to be precisely her point: more often than not, she was both a scarred adolescent fascinated with the powers of her sublime figure and face and an amoral kitten prone to remorselessly raking everything within reach. Her wasted placidity in the tragic final scene was deeply affecting.
James Morris was Ms. Petersen’s match as a handsome, calculating Dr. Schön, singing with intelligence, compassion and sustained security. Gary Lehman was an ardent, ultimately pitiable Alwa. Michael Schade’s Painter was eloquently sung and relatably pathetic. Anne Sofie von Otter brought a sad dignity to the Countess Geschwitz. Bradley Garvin was a magnetic Animal Tamer and Acrobat; Gwynne Howell, a likably crusty Schigolch. Smaller roles were capably handled.
Not all of the initially sizable audience on Saturday afternoon endured the four-hour journey. Still, passion and engagement ran high among those in attendance; seldom have I heard the work’s morbid humor elicit laughter so readily. (One particular line during the third act — “We bankers know our business, dear,” sung just before a spectacular stock failure ruined everyone onstage — had obviously gained in rueful resonance.) Ms. Petersen and Mr. Morris rightly earned hearty ovations, but the most tumultuous applause was reserved for Mr. Luisi.