How to talk about the corpus of Alban Berg's three-act opera Lulu rises to the top of the Dresser's concerns after seeing this four-hour extravaganza as a live simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera on November 21, 2015. Directed by the South African visual artist William Kentridge who is making his second dazzling production at the Met (Shostakovich's The Nose was his first) and sung by the masterful German coloratura soprano Marlis Petersen who vows that this being her eleventh production of Lulu she will not do the Lulu role again, the Dresser is convinced that she has seen the penultimate production of an opera about a woman with an insatiable sex drive.
A student of the Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, Austrian-born Berg was persecuted by the Nazis for his association with a Jew and for the modernity of his work. Berg, who died suddenly in late December 1935, worked on Lulu from 1929 to 1935 but did not complete act III. He adapted the libretto from two plays by Frank Wedekind--Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box, 1904). Together these plays were known at the Lulu plays. After Berg's death, the Zurich Opera premiered the incomplete opera in 1937. Berg's wife Helene asked Schoenberg to complete the orchestration, which initially he said he would do, but later recanted, saying it would be more time-consuming than he had envisioned. After Helene Berg died in 1976, Friedrich Cerha began work to complete Lulu. The completed 12-tone opera premiered in February 1979 at the Opera Garnier conducted by Pierre Boulez and in 1980 at the Met.
Putting aside the body of works from which the Lulu opera sprung and evolved to completion, the Dresser notes that the story is about the human body, not so much the arms or legs but the central part containing especially the heart and sexual organs. Kentridge, using animations of his black ink drawings, shows the body, Lulu's body, in various perspectives. Lulu, who goes by a different name for every man she has relations with, is a reclining odalisque or an upright mannequin sometimes wearing a whole-head cylindrical mask and throughout the opera wearing a piece of paper on her breast with lines suggesting the breast. For Kentridge, Lulu is a work of art. Despite a man at the end of the opera telling her she doesn't have enough body for any man because she has too much brain for a woman, the corporal pull is what makes her a tragic figure suitable for opera.
Lulu's backstory, which the audience doesn't learn right away, is at age twelve she is rescued from selling flowers in the street by Dr. Schön (Danish baritone Johan Reuter). Or was she rescued, since Schön took her as his lover. Her street partner was Schigolch (German baritone Franz Grundheber) who initially says he is her father but that remains to be seen and certainly it seems he had a sexual relationship with her at an early age.
As the play opens, Lulu is married to Doctor Göll, but is fooling around with Doctor Schön, who is secretly observing her as a man painting her portrait tries to seduce her. Unexpectedly, the elderly Doctor Göll arrives home, sees Lulu entangled with the painter (American tenor Paul Groves), and drops dead of a heart attack. Lulu marries the painter, but he commits suicide when he learns about Lulu's past from Dr. Schön. Unfazed by the painter's death, Lulu forces her hand with Schön during her participation weeks later in a ballet composed by Schön's son Alwa (American tenor Daniel Brenna). In what feels like scene of the Dominatrix (Lulu) over the submissive (Schön), she gets Schön to write a letter to his fiancé cancelling their engagement so he can marry Lulu. Kentridge's set of props lacked only a whip.
Act II shows Lulu surrounded by vocally love-struck admirers including the lesbian Countess Geschwitz (American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham), a schoolboy (American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong) and his father, an acrobat (Austrian Bass-baritone Martin Winkler) and Alwa. Alwa tells her how much he loves her--they grew up together and Lulu matter-of-factly tells him she poisoned his mother. Schön, hiding but observing then reveals himself. The visitors hide and Schön goes crazy insisting that Lulu should shoot and kill herself. Reasonably, Lulu asks why not divorce? Schön says he doesn't want anyone else enjoying her. The schoolboy tries to escape and distracts Schön. Lulu takes this opportunity to shoot Schön in the back.
During a musical interlude, the projected artwork tells the story of her arrest, trial, imprisonment, and her hospitalization for cholera. The Countess helps her escape. Lulu is wasted by the disease and ends up leaving for Paris with Alwa. In Act III, she has recovered living off Alwa's wealth in railway stock, but several men try to blackmail her regarding Dr. Schön's murder. The stock market takes a dive, and Lulu undaunted ends up as a prostitute in London with Alwa and Schigolch living off her profits. The Countess, still in love with Lulu, finds them bringing with her Lulu's portrait. One of Lulu's John's kills Alwa as Alwa tries to protect her. Lulu's last John turns out to be Jack the Ripper (played by the same singer who played Dr. Schön). Jack cuts Lulu's throat and stabs the Countess. So the story of the body ends.
The music of Lulu is built on the 12-tone scale but it is lyrical though imperative. Marlis Petersen as Lulu is on stage much of the opera and made the singing and acting seamless. Two soundless characters added by Kentridge make curious viewing. One is a butler who does things like push around set screens or hand Dr. Schön a gun in the scene where the doctor gets killed. The other is a pianist who acts as Lulu's alter ego and is often dressed similarly. The pianist with body language punctuates emotional scenes by appearing to have fallen off her bench, for example, during the scene when the artist is learning about Lulu's past and just prior to his suicide. He says happiness terrifies him and the pianist appears contorted with her feet on the bench while her body is on the floor. The large supporting cast recedes in Lulu's shadow but make the opera flow. What competes with the singers on stage and musicians in the pit under the able direction of Lothar Koenigs is the projected artwork that has layers like onionskin always peeling back into new perspectives.
In Maria Terrone's poem "The Sum of Her" from her book The Bodies We Were Loaned, the reader meets a character who unlike Lulu has gotten beyond the frailty of the body but who sets us wondering why this woman with her slashed face isn't out for vengeance or hasn't fallen apart emotionally. In this regard, Lulu and the woman in this poem are alike and rise above the tragic circumstances of their lives. Even when Lulu kills Dr. Schön, we know it is not vengeful but just a matter of survival. It seems that of all the men in Lulu's life Schön was the one she loved, the one she had to court. She says to him in Act II, "I married you but you didn't marry me."
THE SUM OF HER
She strides in, a striking figure all eyes add up:
taller than most men on the train, curves
slick in shiny stretch pants. A long knife scar
rides her left cheek like a skid mark
on a dangerous road she once took, and yet
she stands erect, proud and self-possessed
as a statue of Venus. So hard to solve this problem
of division, to see how one bisecting line
white as fear, sharp and clean as a shard
of ice can brand her as more or less
than a woman. I'd expect her downcast,
hunched in a corner: or out for vengeance, slashing
men to nothing with a swift razor-blade
glance. Shouldn't one with that face fall to pieces?
Instead serenity flows from bottomless eyes
focused on infinity--she's a Hindu goddess,
pure form honed by Picasso, bursting all frames
of reference. Nothing of this woman coheres,
nothing about her is easy--like someone we know
but can't name or puzzle that's just too complex,
she's studied from all angles, then subtracted
as every pair of eyes turns away.
from The Bodies We Were Loaned
copyright © 2002 Maria Terrone
from The Bodies We Were Loaned