Friday, February 12, 2016

Is that all there is?

Lulu - Metropolitan Opera, 11/17/2015
Petersen, Reuter, Brenna, Graham, Groves, Grundheber / Koenigs

I'm not sure what was more disappointing: having my operagoing last fall be interrupted by mild but persistent health troubles or coming back to this new production. William Kentridge's Lulu was as inert and obfuscatory as his Nose five-and-a-half years ago was alive and illuminating. It was so poorly judged, in fact, that the earlier success seems quite tarnished.

Many of the surface features from the Shostakovich triumph were repeated here: hand-animated film backgrounds, non-naturalistic foreground acting, and the overall visual construction of the experience carried over. But Lulu is absolutely not the Nose. Both are, of course, products of the interwar period and broadly classifiable as modernist. But Shostakovich's opera is (as one might expect from a piece written in and for a world that went from the courtly constriction and autocracy of Imperial Russia straight to the peer-enforced mass-delusional kakocracy that is Communism) a piece that shows social position and role to be supreme and values, personal feeling, and logic itself to be transient or hopeless. In this aesthetic world the flatness and literal cutout nature of the individual players -- brilliantly highlighted by Kentridge's visual design -- is and accentuates the joke. Alban Berg's Lulu, on the other hand, is in a much more familiar modernist vein: here (as in Shostakovich's other familiar opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) it's the compulsions within each man -- for domination, sex, and murder -- that are supreme. It demands, as it got at the last Met revival, vivid individuals.

What we got from Kentridge, of course, was the same flattening, de-individuating, and trivializing presentation of his last Met show. It's not clear whether this is because he's basically a one-trick pony or because he (like Ring-director Robert Lepage) was altogether uninterested in the nonvisual side of the production and left it to his colleague, here co-director Luc de Wit (a Belgian of seemingly run-of-the-mill Eurononsense inclinations). In either case, Lulu's tragedy thereby got presented as pure nihilistic comedy... a wretched fit for both text and music.

The wasted opportunity was tremendous, for Marlis Petersen -- who's apparently given up singing Lulu going forward -- was, if anything, an even greater exponent of the killer title role than in the great 2010 revival of John Dexter's now-superseded production. Even next to parodies of Lulu's appeal, Petersen's command of her character's moods and vocal lines was notable throughout. She lacked a foil, however, as Johan Reuter (so effective as Barak two seasons back) was here simply buried under the intentionally ugly outfits and deflating stage bits given to Dr. Schön. Perhaps James Morris (the unexpected star of the last revival) could have made an impression through and despite a production intent on making him ridiculous instead of Lulu's great adversary, but Reuter could not.

Lothar Koenigs deputized well on short notice after James Levine's cancellation, and Susan Graham made much of her opportunities as Geschwitz. (Incidentally, the ridiculous subtitle bowdlerization at the end remains.) More's the pity.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.