Staging an incomplete work – be it Puccini’s Turandot or Berg’s Lulu – is always tricky. One never knows how much of the torso would remain if the composer could have had the time to behold the complete work and make his final touches. In the case of Lulu, one could actually write an opera about it – when Berg died, he had written acts I and II. For act III, there were the vocal parts and a couple of scenes fully composed (basically those appearing in the Lulu suite) – the particella would show more or less what he envisaged for the rest of it. Although Berg’s widow first showed an interest in commissioning the completion of the opera, she would later mysteriously change her mind and finally forbid anyone to see the material left by her husband, let alone do anything about it. The editors, however, smuggled copies to Friedrich Cerha, whose final edition would only be performed in Paris in 1976 (as we can listen in the live recording with Teresa Stratas conducted by Pierre Boulez). This year, the Deutsche Staatsoper decided to write a postlude to this story. Based on the opinion that the Prologue was composed to appease eventual censorship, it was decided that it should be cut off. You notice that I did not produce the name of who made this decision – it must be someone far more authoritative than Berg himself, who took the pains to compose the music for it. The second big decision was to have act III beginning right from the London scene. This time the reason was that it is dramatically flawed and musically inconsistent. That is why English composer David Robert Coleman was invited to re-orchestrate what remains of the controversial last act. I am no specialist in Berg’s music and have listened to Lulu only a couple of times in my life, but – even if I mistrust people who find themselves more clever than the original composers themselves – I have to confess that I found Coleman’s intentionally “more intimate” orchestration effective, rich in atmospheric effects and aptly uncanny.
I am hardly the best person to assess how successful Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is in this repertoire. I have listened to his recording of Wozzeck and found it a bit dull, but this evening, even if an expert tries to convince me of the contrary, I would stick to my very positive impression. I have written here that I found Levine’s last Wozzeck at the Met “Straussian” in its beautiful orchestral sound – but this evening’s Lulu was almost Tristan-esque in its rich-toned, dense, dark, intense, passionate conducting. When I write “passionate”, I can see some people raising their eyebrows – and I answer that I don’t mean by it that it was loud and full of contrasting tempi. No, the performance flowed naturally and the orchestra had a Bayreuth-ian “full but not loud” aural picture, with amazing effects in wind instruments in truly concertante writing with singers on stage. I would say that those who left the theatre this evening still disliking this opera should probably loose hope of ever liking it.
The cast here assembled could also hardly be bettered. First of all, the casting of Mojca Erdmann in the title role couldn’t be more interesting. Her sweet, almost edulcorated soprano is not really expressive in itself – it does not suggest seduction, raw energy, rapaciousness, you name it. It’s almost virginal purity, allied to her almost abstract interpretation, made her Lulu more puzzling than any other singer I have seen in this role. Some say that Lulu is nothing but a projection of the desires of those surrounding her, and that is how she sounded this evening, some sort of perverted Olympia (yes, from Les Contes d’Hoffmann). She sang with great accuracy, Mozartian poise and very clean high notes. In other repertoire, some could find her in alts a bit underwhelming, here I found them instrumental and musically elegant, in the sense that they never saturated the picture, but rather blended into it. She must be praised too by her willingness to sing this impossibly difficult music in the most difficult positions, being carried by other actors and even almost upside down at one point.
Deborah Polaski was similarly an elegantly understated Countess Geschwitz, her sizable dramatic giving her enough leeway to deliver her text in a most musically spontaneous way. The Staatsoper must be praised by the impressive group of tenors featured this evening. Stephan Rügamer caressed Berg’s lines as if they had been composed by Mozart in the role of the Painter and nimbly executed a complex choreography as the Negro while singing with the right sense of humor. Thomas Pifka proved to be a more heroic Alwa than often, less smooth than, say, Peter Straka (in Jeffrey Tate’s recording) but more positive and varied, while Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke displayed a more metallic and verbally specific approach to the Prince. Among the low voices, Michael Volle (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper) called attention in its velvety richness and volume, but he would tire a bit by the end of act II. In comparison, Thomas J. Mayer(the Athlete) sounded recessed and rough-toned, but he is an excellent actor and used the text very convincingly. Jürgen Linn’s pitch-dark Schigolch had too much off-pitch expressive effects, but this seems to be the rule in this role. Anna Lapkovskaja (dresser/high-school boy) deserves mentions too for her forceful, fruity voice.
As for Andrea Breth’s production, although I quite like the decadent atmosphere she was able to produce and her very precise Personenregie, I cannot stand stagings in which people behave like puppets. The fun of watching opera is seeing PEOPLE on stage and the richness of expression they can convey with their faces and gestures. If they are supposed to walk like a robot, then I would rather see the concert version – especially in a concept in which the libretto is very loosely followed in a plot that demands a little bit more attention (too many characters, too many unconventional reactions, too many different settings…) from the audience. To make things more problematic, from act II on, the robot-walking is replaced by somewhat more realistic acting, but then one has already given up. I am sure that, in straight theatre, where the dialogues are more specific, this may work (or not?) – but here it was just “noise” to the music.