The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

LOC Brief Encounter with Alban Berg's Lulu

The title of a new opera starts things off in reviewing a now past season performance of one of the greatest classics of the twentieth century, and perhaps for good reason. For one, I only listened through Act 2 of the Saturday broadcast from Chicago Lyric. What was heard thus far did not do Alban Berg’s score adequate justice.

Using equally the Friedrich Cerha completion of Act 3 was a broadcast of Lulu from Lyric twenty years ago, starring Catherine Malfitano and Viktor Braun and conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. I was, going in, a bit apprehensive of what might lean toward being too dry or academic. If anything needed to help, it certainly was the frisson that producer Yuri Lyubimov somehow brought to the stage, even infusing such a line as ‘Der Teufel’ from a dying Dr Schon with acerbic wit. Somehow Rodney Milnes (in review I looked up last weekend) found the production altogether humorless, but I hardly at all believe him. Up next to what I heard Saturday, the Davies performances were positively orgiastic; this Lulu had its very deeply affecting moments too. Saturday, by way of contrast, there were numerous instances in which the singing actors pointlessly hammed up their lines or worked the hall. I do not surmise that this is what passes for humor to Rodney Milnes, as I usually very much respect his judgment.

In terms of pretty good knowledge of the score, Sir Andrew Davis is someone I certainly find efficient enough, for instance being able to hold things together and for having a pretty good superficial understanding of what essentially goes on musically here. Beyond that, still keeping in mind that the Lyric orchestra plays this music well, I heard little that made any difference. Gilding phrase endings of passages of musical romanticism in this and (in effect just partly to help singers sustain strenuous high notes) clipping other passages or note values for modernistic effect do not really cut it, as toward giving a unified feel to Lulu. Even in the context of smoothly enough handled transitions and what have you, it still is lacking.

The coloring, nuance Davis did provide, it is insufficient for sense of the overtones in the complex motivic and harmonic language of this music. It is most definitely in some of that most certainly lies the soul and even the spirituality of Alban Berg's music, and as revealing the character of Lulu herself. The internal engine for the frisson a good producer can add to theatrical proceedings is found in the substance of the music itself.

There is the dialectic in how the system by which Lulu was composed seriously undermined the system of overtones we have with diatonic or what we call tonal music. Berg further expanded upon things, the dialectic, by re-introducing diatonicism into the mix of composing in tone rows. If not a convincing and completely thought out romantic view of the work – or even a completely thoroughly worked out balance between all romantic and modernistic elements as one might get from Metzmacher – why not then a convincing modernistic take on it, such as we’ve heard already from Boulez and Davies? With Andrew Davis, there was instead little of any point of view conveyed here at all.

An assured smugness, self-satisfaction has taken over with Andrew Davis that Saturday one had to wait until 'O freiheit' in Act Two, Scene 2, for any sense of the heat being turned up to anywhere near the level at which some of this music is written. Here it merely seemed that Davis got carried along by Marlis Petersen, in one of her best moments in the broadcast. There is also so much need for contrast between sections in music so immersed in the classical tradition as Lulu is - with its beautifully crafted adaptation of sonata and rondo forms - for the chamber music sections, with its beautiful woodwind concertato writing. Fact remains too that some of the best comic relief scenes – mix of high and low comedy – in this opera occur with these passages. Clarity of much of Berg's writing was good, but the reason why any of it should be so clear, anymore than Previn's facilely crafted spinning and re-spinning over and over again of seventh and ninth chords in Brief Encounter here, hardly existed at all.

The buhnemusik sections (for jazz band) seemed to be coming, instead of from where the noise of audience applause from very back of stage for Act 1, Scene 3 (back-stage scene) is, to be coming from the orchestra pit. I decided then to investigate the Glyndebourne dvd, as also conducted by Andrew Davis. Graham Vick has set up a brick-wall cyclodrome, which in his conceptualization seems to be blocking off of any notion that anything should or might be such to ever happen behind it, except for a couple of apertures in it through which characters can enter and exit - so aurally the effect on the dvd was pretty much the same as heard from Lyric.. The production at Lyric was by Paul Curran, not Graham Vick, so what might have been the excuse here? Frankly, what may have been the excuse either time? This is by far cutting corners way too much on what the composer wrote. It is especially to be cutting corners if the special instrumentation for the jazz band is not fully included; the temptation to cut back thus is so much greater with this music played in the pit, including for those who will follow this example.

Marlis Petersen spoke very sympathetically of the character of Lulu at second intermission, right before I tuned out. She tended however to overplay Lulu as a malicious vamp in the early scenes of the opera. While being just a bit weak with low notes, her voice showed the flexibility to meet most of the demands of the music, but let it perhaps be churlish to say that notes above the staff tended to tighten much, and thus she became a little easily compromised by some of the most cruel demands the music makes on the upper part of the soprano range. Compromising her best efforts was the failure of any really truly complete support from the podium.

Wolfgang Schone made a good, conventional Dr Schon, that showed too some growth into the part since performing it at Glyndebourne fifteen years ago. Willliam Burden made a somewhat light-voiced but at the same time refulgent enough Alwa to be at least very close to fully credible in the part, instead of for instance being cast as the Painter (capably sung by Scott Ramsay). A chesty sounding Jill Grove somewhat underlined the butch aspect of Geschwitz a little much for my tastes, but otherwise served the part adequately well. Thomas Hammons, being light in voice for Schigolch, relied a little heavily on broad cliche to put across such a mysterious character as Schigolch, thus one got little or considerably less feel for what Schigolch is about certainly than one should. Some of that may have to be chalked up to failure on part of the dramaturgy behind the Paul Curran production - regardless the praise for it I have read.

Other reviews have remarked upon the clarity and ease with which Marlis Petersen sings the title role of Lulu. One however only has to remember just back as far as Christine Schafer to find a true ideal - and for who so effortlessly acts the part that she is practically indistinguishable from the character herself. Vick however does so little to work with the singer toward bringing out how she might be able to give a little of her own insight and as such not to quite interfere much at all with whatever Vick's lofty ideas or ideals might be, that is, if there exist any. Vick tends to work best with singers being on stage with just one other singer, but his putting Norman Bailey as Schigolch at one point in poistion of humping Lulu does absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing at all, but confuse whoever is watching as to what is going on. It is not even risible in any outré way; it is just boring - but we must see that it is his way instead of that of the top Lulu in the world (no pun intended) and one of the top Wotan's of the 1970's as Schigolch.

The necessity of having the Lulu from Glyndebourne is indeed the vocalism and complete artistry of Christne Schafer. Andrew Davis, here with a London Philharmonic that seldom ever goes the second mile in revealing the harmonic depths of Lulu, is less interpretative, affected, or obfuscating of musical form than how I found his work from Lyric. The inner rhythmic vitality of the music comes across on the dvd performance better as well. When one reaches 'O freiheit' towards the end of Act Two however, one still has to ask, 'is that all he or they can give?'

Graham Vick curiously also cheats us of feeling sympathy for other than Countess Geschwitz (sung eloquently by Kathryn Harries). The buildup of manic obsession in Dr Schon, that can get clichéd too much the other way, is such from Vick that Wolfgang Schone is mostly left to fend for himself toward finding it, and while a too little and especially too late, he does halfway through Act Two, Scene 1. Having David Kuebler, incisive as Alwa, play the artist son of Dr Schon a bit wild-eyed all the time, undercuts some how Alban Berg may have found some of his own persona in Alwa Schon.

What got undercut through most of this is the music of Alban Berg, so at once ornate and meditative on the psychology of what drives these characters (especially of about five of them).that both implicitly and openly admits to there being greater secrets to the characters we can only start getting to know. Anymore than that we must unearth ourselves. Such is the very beauty, even the aesthetic of Alban Berg's Lulu.

Whatever loss was encountered - there was much - it is good to remake the acquaintance of such a good friend as this score, that Saturday upon better unearthing its riches, is such that may not be able to stop paying back. However inadequate a performance, it is only so far that one can take away from such genius. Perhaps when we return - in attempting perhaps to rescue Mozart from the Glyndebourne tradition more than some have tried so far - to doing Mozart the justice his music deserves, we will eventually also in a more deep and satisfying way find Alban Berg. For all the ‘glutinous’ layering on of rallentandi at the ends of numbers in Nozze di Figaro, conducted by Andrew Davis, almost in simultaneous run with the Lulu of 21 years ago, Rodney Milnes found the Nozze to be in ‘sanctimonious Victorian’ mode so much of the way.

Could not have Lyric instead lured Markus Stenz, Jonathan Nott, Ingo Metzmacher, Kazushi Ono, Kent Nagano, Edo De Waart, Ilan Volkov, or even Dennis Russell Davies again to their podium for this? It has been mentioned that the score of Lulu, such as could be said of Mahler 6, is in effect a dirge, though inculcating such a variety of both instrumental and vocal forms. Whereas there may be much death over which to suffer loss, there should be some or at least a little more semblance of life to have made it noticeable or a little more so than was made evident Saturday.

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