Lulu opera: a classical musician’s review


Earlier this summer, Maeshelle West-Davies and I went to the opera together here in Leipzig. We didn’t see your normal operatic fair, but rather one of the most complex and difficult pieces in all of the operatic repertoire – Alban Berg’s Lulu.

For those who perhaps haven’t heard of Lulu before, have no fear. It is considered a beautiful yet strange gem of early 20th century opera that is usually overshadowed by Berg’s other great operatic masterpiece, Wozzeck.

It is unfortunately rarely performed due to its difficulty. Finding a soprano that can not only sing but also learn the title role is difficult enough, and it’s not necessarily the easiest opera to grasp for the casual opera-goer at first listen.

Nearly completely atonal and composed using a complex process called “twelve-tone technique,” the music has no melodies, tunes, harmonic or rhythmic structures, or anything really for the ear to grasp. However, Berg composed it in such a way that leaves audience members surprisingly fresh and ready for more at the end of each act.

In addition, Lulu doesn’t really have a “plot” – it’s more a chronological series of vignettes showing glimpses into the title character’s turbulent life. Lulu, in short, is surrounded by people who use and abuse her, and vice versa.

The opera unabashedly looks into some of the grimiest and most unpleasant corners of human existence, in which psychopaths, sociopaths and megalomaniacs reign supreme.

It is a perfect example of early 20th century opera that came out of the Second Viennese School, whose composers had lived through the First World War, and all the atrocities that came with it.

And speaking of difficultly, I cannot begin to impress on you, dear reader, just how difficult this opera is.

Seasoned professionals shudder at the thought of putting it on stage, and the difficulties are for everyone – the singers who need to sing and memorize this behemoth, the pianists who need to somehow play this monster and coach all the individual notes, the extraordinary demands it places on the orchestra, and the conductor who needs to tie it together and, to put it simply, figure out what on earth is going on and translate that into music.

If you happen to open a piano-vocal score of Lulu, it looks like a vengeful composer threw up random spots of black onto the musical staff, tied some rhythms to it, and called it a day. It is extremely intimidating stuff.

And yet, with all things in this vein, not only does it sound like music, it sounds like glorious music. And it is oh-so-beautifully intricate, delicate, romantic, expressive – and throughout the evening increasingly implausible that this cacophony of sound can be so gorgeous. Especially the first two acts. (More on that later).

Thankfully, our forces were more than up for the job.

Our Lulu, Rebecca Nelsen, performed with total vocal and dramatic command. Not only did she not once vocally tire – in an opera where she sings nearly the entire time – but she coupled her musicality with a dramatic urgency that was fully absorbing and engrossing. It was, without a doubt, a tour de force performance.

Simon Neal, who performed the double bill of Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper, was her equal, and his golden baritone quality also revealed a steel-like quality which enabled him to carry over the enormous orchestra.

In the pit, we had the venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra, which played excellently. Although they are certainly one of the best orchestras in the world, which is made readily apparent in their main hall, I’ve heard them enough times to know they can get a bit sloppy in the opera pit.

Not this time, though.

They exhibited all of their usual qualities, which lent themselves perfectly to this music – a rich string sound, supported by their special burnished-gold brass quality, backed by a rhythmic punch delivered by their percussion section.

A special shout-out goes to the clarinets; they played with such beautiful color and expressiveness during all of the quieter, more intimate moments.

Such a complex and romantic a musical score as that of Lulu played right into the strengths of Oper Leipzig’s GMD, Ulf Schirmer. This Generalmusikdirektor conducted with his usual rhythmic solidity and breadth, but made sure to carve out the romanticism when the music demanded it.

As Maeshelle already pointed out, the production and staging were extremely well done. Lotte de Beer’s idea of using video installations to show Lulu’s sexual and emotional abuse when she was a young girl immediately planted the seed of sympathy within the audience.

With this as a foundation, all of the general insanity that follows has a root cause.

Maeshelle and I during the intermissions both empathized with Lulu, both of us exclaiming that she is just a girl trying to survive within all of this madness. This introduction of her character was a very clever idea, otherwise Lulu would seem just as unstable and horrible as the people surrounding her.

If you, the audience member, ended up hating the main character halfway through the first act, it would become a long night indeed.

It wasn’t all perfect, though. The absence of subtitles proved a particular problem. Although some lines that were crucial to the plot were projected within the video installations themselves, the vast majority of the German libretto was lost.

Overall, the singers did an excellent job with their diction, but projecting an extremely complicated plot over an enormous orchestra while singing in the stratosphere of their vocal tessitura would be impossible for anyone.

At the end of the Second Act, I leaned over to my German neighbor to ask if he, a native German speaker, could understand everything. “Maybe 25%,” he replied.

However, it was the inclusion of the Third Act that put a major damper on the entire evening for me.

Alban Berg never actually completed the entire opera, and although he finished the first two acts in their entirety, he left only sketches of the Third Act – some fully orchestrated, others not.

These were pieced together after his death and fully realized by Friedrich Cerha. Although Cerha did a good job, he wasn’t Berg, and by the middle of the Third Act, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

The first two acts, both musically and dramatically, were terrific – I left the auditorium with fresh ears, indeed, looking forward to the next act. This is obviously thanks to the performers, but especially to Alban Berg, who varied the music enough that the listener never gets tired.

There was always a change of texture, tempo, orchestration, or even the singers themselves. That made even the most difficult passages manageable.

In comparison, the Third Act was a drag – essentially a giant black empty space on the stage with the singers frantically running around and the music falling far too short of its objective.

Had the opera remained in its original, incomplete two-act version, it would have been an absolute slam dunk. The third act aside, it was still an excellent evening.

It is a shame Oper Leipzig only performed it three times, as the amount of work that was invested would have justified many more performances. The hall was nearly sold out, and it was nice to see that the core Leipzig opera audience did not shy away from such a difficult opera.

It will not come back next season in 2019-20, but when it eventually makes its way back onto Oper Leipzig’s stage, hopefully it’ll be around for much longer.

By Christopher Lade

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