Serial man-killer

By Lawrence A. Johnson

CHICAGO:  “Someone could write an intriguing opera about her,” muses the composer Alwa about the deadly temptress Lulu. Of course, someone did, and Alban Berg’s Lulu is currently running in an absorbing, first-class production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. 
Berg’s opera was left unfinished at his death, and performed for forty years in a two-act version until 1979 when Pierre Boulez premiered Friedrich Cerha’s completion in Paris, revealing the power, unity and brilliance of Berg’s original conception.

 Berg’s modified serialism remains a tough sell, even in a musically sophisticated city like Chicago, and there were plenty of empty seats at Wednesday evening’s performance. Yet even without high-sucrose arias and catchy melodic hooks, so intensely compelling is Berg’s restless, astringent score and the Lyric Opera’s stylish, searing production that the four-hour evening seemed to fly by.

In quick succession, the beautiful yet morally vacuous Lulu causes three of her husbands’ deaths by heart attack (after he catches her in flagrante delicti) suicide, and murder by her own hand. She flees to England where she still maintains a hold over a motley group of hangers on — Alwa, the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, and Schigolch who may or may not be her father — their obsessions with Lulu dragging all to degradation and ruin. Reduced to street prostitution, the once proud Lulu is murdered by a client who turns out to be Jack the Ripper.

 It’s a decidedly grim scenario though the irony of Berg’s distanced treatment has its darkly humorous moments amid the prevailing bleakness and the final, harrowing, scene.

 The Lyric Opera has assembled a world-beater cast for this difficult work, including Marlis Petersen whose astounding performance richly demonstrates why the German singer’s Lulu defines the role for this and future generations.

 Petersen’s lucid, penetrating coloratura voice has the requisite flexibility and range for this tortuous role, able to handle the leaps, retrogrades, inversions, and everything Berg throws at her, the soprano singing the score with the natural ease of a Schubert lied.

The sexy, vampish Petersen completely inhabited the role and commanded the stage using her long, dancer’s legs like a spider’s web to ensnare and destroy her prey. “I’ve never pretended to be anything but what men see in me,” avers Lulu, and Petersen’s portrayal of Lulu from manipulative man-killer to pathetic street whore was as riveting as it was unsettling.

Wolfgang Schone was on the same rarefied level as Dr. Schon, the socially prominent husband murdered by Lulu. The German bass-baritone sang with power and precision, conveying Schon’s decline from cynical capitalist to tormented victim undone by Lulu’s allure. Schone was equally adept in his double role, bringing chilling calculation to Lulu’s murderer, Jack, in the final scene.

 William Burden has quickly become one of our finest and most versatile tenors, and the handsome singer’s vibrant vocalism and superb acting made Alwa a more well-rounded figure than usual, charting his dissipation from respected composer to pitiable wretch.  Jill Grove’s Geschwitz was a bit arch in her opening scene, but the mezzo-soprano soon settled in to the role of the woman whose selfless love and sacrifice for Lulu lead to her own violent death.

 The huge-voiced baritone Jan Buchwald was equally impressive as the Animal Trainer and (rather portly) Athlete, as was Thomas Hammons as the odious Schigolch. In other multiple assignments, Scott Ramsay was superb in the starkly varied roles of the Painter and Sailor, Rodell Rosel admirable as the Prince, Servant and Marquis, and Buffy Baggott, terrific as the Schoolboy, Wardrobe Mistress and Groom.

   Kevin Knight’s stylish costumes and eye-popping white-paneled interiors offered an aptly clinical bourgeois respectability, beautifully lit by David Jacques. Director Paul Curran handled this challenging work magnificently, directing the complex action with supreme skill and fluidity. The scrupulous attention to detail in this production was reflected by the film of Lulu’s trial and imprisonment. FIlmed backstage at the Civic Opera House, the segment could have easily passed for an authentic bit of 1920s German Expressionist cinema.
The Lyric Opera’s music director, Sir Andrew Davis, led a detailed yet expressive account of the score that made Berg’s elliptical lyricism register, drawing responsive, superbly concentrated playing by the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

The biggest, albeit, inadvertent laugh of the evening came in Act 3’s party scene. With the news that stock in Lulu’s shady company had collapsed, a guest attempts to reassure nervous shareholders by saying, “We bankers know what we’re doing.”

 Lulu runs through Nov. 30 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. $32-$197.  312-332-2244;

[Photos by Dan Rest for Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

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Mon Nov 24, 2008
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