by Martin Bernheimer
Alban Berg’s ultimate masterpiece, Lulu, had its premiere in Zurich back in 1937. The Met finally acknowledged the opera 40 years later, thanks to the advocacy of James Levine. Although hardly a mass-audience favourite, the production – directed by John Dexter and designed by Jocelyn Herbert – has survived 33 sporadic performances, with Levine on duty on all but three occasions.
He would have been in the pit for the revival on Saturday as well, had medical issues not intervened. Luckily, Fabio Luisi, the new principal guest conductor, was able to take over, and he did so brilliantly. The complex textures have seldom sounded so transparent, the dynamic shifts so vivid, the lines so taut. Under the circumstances, Berg’s harmonic knots hardly seemed forbidding.
Dexter’s staging scheme, a literal representation of decadence set against cheap expressionist-Jugendstil décor, looks a bit conventional in the brash light of 2010. But it makes sense on its own cautious terms. And, apart from some erotic-aerobic interpolations, Gregory Keller has restored it faithfully, first as a comedy of bad manners, then as a morbid tragedy.
Marlis Petersen initially portrays Lulu, the eternal femme fatale, as an exquisite coquette, pert rather than mysterious, more kitten than tigress. She finds canny pathos for the later scenes, however, as the amoral innocent approaches delusion and desperation. And, despite some stratospheric squeals, she sings the almost impossible part with clarity, ease and, where needed, coloratura glee.
Anne Sofie von Otter complements her as a sympathetic, stoic, quietly powerful Countess Geschwitz. For all his stolidity, James Morris proves that expressive understatement and a slightly rusty Wotan-baritone can be assets as Doktor Schön. Gary Lehman’s urgent heldentenor reinforces the anguish of Alwa, while Michael Schade thrives on impetuous lyricism (everything is relative) as the Painter. Bradley Garvin (replacing David Pittsinger) swaggers brashly as the Animal Tamer/Acrobat, Gwynne Howell totters deftly as seedy old Schigolch, and Graham Clark blusters smartly as the nasty Prince, Servant and Marquis.
Unlike many a recent venture at the mighty Met, this Lulu thrives on ensemble values in depth. There may be hope. (FIVE STARS)