By James L. Zychowicz
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.
Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor) Civic Opera House, Chicago 22.11.2008 (JLZ)
Director: Paul Curran
Set Design: Kevin Knight
Lighting: David Jacques
Animal Tamer/Athlete: Jan Buchwald
Alwa: William Burden
Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper: Wolfgang Schöne
Lulu: Marlis Petersen
Painter/Sailor: Scott Ramsay
Professor of Medicine/Professor: Craig Irvin
Schigolch: Thomas Hammons
Prince/Manservant/Marquis: Rodel Rosel
Wardrobe Mistress/Schoolboy: Buffy Baggott
Countess Geschwitz: Jill Grove
Journalist: Corey Crider
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu is compelling musically, dramatically and visually. With its fine cast which includes Marlis Petersen, one of the outstanding musicians currently portraying the title role, the roles are covered well, and the staging allows them to interact with each other convincingly. The production itself is worthy of note for the innovative tack which Kevin Knight has taken from film.
Not only did Knight allow the character of Lulu to resemble Louise Brooks, who created the role in Pabst’s famous film, Pandora’s Box, but he also used the idea of film to frame each act, from the tableaux which opened them, to the scrimmed “Ende” at the conclusion of the work. In approaching the design in this way, Knight integrated into the production the musical sequence in the second act, for which Berg recommended using film to show the trial, imprisonment, and escape of Lulu, prior to her return to Alwa. The film was no longer anomalous, but part of the visual language of this production. Thus, other elements from film merged into the design to fine effect. With the Louise-Brooks wig of medium-length black hair that seemingly remains perpetually in place, Petersen resembled the image of Lulu as immortalized on film, and the film itself came to life in this production. With the visual element unifying the performance and with the fine leadership that Sir Andrew Davis has given it, this production makes an important work accessible to a wider audience.
As Lulu, Marlis Petersen sang the role easily and convincingly. She has captured the details of the part excellently, with a facility that other singers may not have. If her voice was sometimes difficult to hear, this was the result of the sometimes thick textures in the score, which was also well executed by the orchestra. Petersen’s phrasing made the sometimes angular lines that Berg used to depict his character, emerge with the remarkable clarity otherwise. Her diction, the German of a native speaker, contributed to her success in a role which she has also played in Vienna and other cities. And as incongruous as it may seem, Petersen’s previous role at Lyric was as Adele in the 2006-2007 season, an equally memorable portrayal though in many ways removed from the multidimensional Lulu of Berg’s opera. That aside, the freshness and engaging tone that Petersen brought to Adele actually enlivened her depiction of Lulu. The vocal presence was useful in defining her character, with the passages of Sprechstimme executed beautifully. Likewise, Petersen’s speaking voice lent authority to the limited passages of spoken dialogue at critical points in the drama.
The entire cast formed a tight ensemble in this almost seamless production. Jill Grove chracterised Countess Geschwitz convincingly, with her fatal attraction to Lulu clearly apparent and absent of any affectation. In bringing to life the sometimes surrealistic character of Geschwitz, Grove brought to it the kind of expression that she used to create the role of the Nurse in last season’s production of Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten. Grove worked very well with Petersen, especially in the second act, where the chemistry between the two must occur almost instantaneously, and the two reacted smoothly with Wolfgang Schöne, who played Dr. Schöne, the tragic victim of Lulu’s acknowledged sincere love.
As Schön, Wolfgang Schöne re-created for this Lyric production a role that has been a mainstay of his career. He delivered with the same facility as Petersen, with his baritone timbre working clearly through the the entire score. Physically, he brought his character to life with appropriate body language and gestures denoting the old man, especially in the second act, where Dr. Schön has become as obsessive about Lulu’s other lovers as Lulu herself was in attracting them. The monologue in which Schön wields the pistol that will seal his own fate was a fine part of the act, a point in this production in which the musical and theatrical pitch was appropriately heightened.
Among the rest of the cast, the American tenor William Burden was three-dimensional as Alwa. No mere pawn of Lulu, Burden gave his part all of the nuance that Wedekind wrote into the character, and his delivery was impeccable. Burden’s voice fits Alwa’s music nicely, and he made the sometimes demanding lines seem effortless. Known for various roles in Britten’s operas, Burden deserves attention for his solid approach to the character of Alwa. At the end of the second act, the scene where Alwa makes love to Lulu at the place where his father, Dr. Schön, died, his evocation of Lulu as an almost ideal beauty was memorable for its soaring line and the seamless handling of Berg’s music.
Thomas Hammons made the mysterious character of Schigolch seem, at times, as much an earth-spirit as Lulu herself, since he, of all the people in opera, seems to have known her long before the action begins. His bass-baritone voice lent appropriate weight to the role, which includes some lines that must rise well above the stave. In the same way, Jan Buchwald gave a fine reading to the dual roles of Animal Tamer and Athlete. In the former role. Buchwald was immediately effective in the prologue, which started in this production on the main floor of the theatre, before he moved to the stage and took the audience into the action of the opera. Even though Buchwald was sometimes difficult to hear form that position, once again this seemed to be because he was struggling against orchestral energy.
Of all the principals, the tenor Scott Ramsay seemed less engaged in the role of the painter, the character whose interest in Lulu sparks the chain of tragic deaths that are crucial to the plot. From the musical level, he gave a fine reading, but it may be that the blocking in this production needs to engage the Painter more effectively to make his part work as well as the others do. Lulu is a difficult score that requires a deft hand at the dramaturgy, something that emerged at times in the various parts which Rodell Rosel had – the humorous touches he gave to the part of the manservant helped to play up Lulu’s presence as a force of nature within her own household. His characterization of the Marquis too gave a nice pointedness to that role, which is crucial to Lulu’s fateful decisions.
Yet it is the principals who must resolve the drama in the final act, with Petersen, Grove, and Burden bringing the work to its dénouement. As Jack the Ripper, Schöne’s determination is menacing from his first entrance. The tragic ending is cinematic in the best sense, and delivers the appropriate catharsis to this highly charged work.
One of the masterpieces of twentieth-century opera, Berg’s Lulu becomes even more compelling in Lyric’s new production. Strong theater on its own merits, the musical content serves the work equally well. Sir Andrew Davis gave remarkable shape to the lines of Berg’s score, such that the dissonant idiom Berg chose for this work was thoroughly accessible, and the musical structures readily perceivable. It is encouraging to see the audiences that Lyric Opera can attract to its productions, and it is even more admirable when a work like Lulu can attract full houses. Lyric Opera of Chicago is to be commended not only for bringing this powerful opera back for new audiences, but also for creating a fine production which enhanced the outstanding execution of the music to great effect.