• U.S.

Music: Lulu Arrives in Full Dress

3 minute read
Christopher Porterfield

Berg’s masterpiece is done justice in Santa Fe

When the Paris Opéra presented the world premiere of Alban Berg’s complete Lulu in February, one of the masterpieces of 20th century opera stood revealed at last. Or did it? Berg left the orchestration of the third and final act unfinished at his death in 1935. For years the work had to be performed in truncated form. In Paris, Conductor Pierre Boulez unveiled the full score as completed by Viennese Composer Friedrich Cerha. But Director Patrice Chéreau’s eccentric staging reflected as much Chéreau as Berg, and many of the composer’s dramatic intentions remained unfulfilled.

Now the full-length Lulu is being given its first U.S. performances by the venturesome Santa Fe Opera. Some of the vocal panache and soaring emotion of the Paris production may be missing, but little else is. The Santa Feans have staged the work with unusual care and intelligence. This time Berg the librettist is as well served as Berg the composer.

Under Colin Graham’s direction, the story—adapted from two plays by German Pre-Expressionist Frank Wedekind—unfolds in swift, biting scenes (given fine clarity by Arthur Jacobs’ translation). The mysterious Lulu is a dancer, an amoral enchantress, perhaps a force of nature. She first rises through society, then falls disastrously, as lovers contend for her elusive soul and all too accessible body. Throughout the opera, a large portrait of her hangs onstage—one of Berg’s many specifications that were sometimes ignored in the past.

John Conklin’s set (inspired by sketches by the late Rudolf Heinrich for Santa Fe’s U.S. premiere of the shorter Lulu in 1963) captures the work’s heartless, hypocritical milieu with a doorway here, a sofa or a plant there. All is gelid grays and greens except for the lurid red of Lulu’s dress and wig. The stage is framed by two skeletal, metallic walls that recede almost to a vanishing point. In the final scene, when Lulu has ended up as a prostitute in a London attic, the walls suggest the street below, but they also suggest the desolate, fateful corridor down which Lulu has been careening all along.

Michael Tilson Thomas’ conducting matches the urgent pace of the staging without blurring the transparent intricacies of Berg’s twelve-tone score. As Lulu, Soprano Nancy Shade sings her precipitous vocal lines strongly and accurately, which is more of an achievement than it may sound. But she only acts out bewitching allure; she does not embody it. During rehearsals, the cast screened Louise Brooks’ Lulu in the 1928 silent film of Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box— which may partly account for Shade’s tendency to play the role as a jazz-age vamp.

As Dr. Schön, Lulu’s patron, husband and prime victim, Bass-Baritone William Dooley mordantly conveys the opera’s central drama of worldly power and rationality being ravaged by the primal erotic instinct. Among other solid supporting performances, Bass-Baritone Andrew Foldi is funny and touching as Schigolch, the old man who may be Lulu’s father and who is as good a key as any to Berg’s newly retrieved third act. Schigolch is the none too comforting image of what is left after passion and violence are spent: a scrabbling, wheezy, lecherous rag bag of a survivor. — C.P.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com