The Mysterious Creature ‘Lulu’

How to become a femme fatale

On The Town | Walter Guertelschmied | July / August 2010

Who or what is LULU?

Is she a courtesan? A cheap whore? A calculating hussy? A brazen murderer? Maybe a frigid wife who can only abandon herself to a sex killer? Someone unable to have a relationship or to love? Or maybe even a lesbian? What’s most important? To do business, have social status or buy expensive sex? Does she have any concept of that higher thing called eroticism? Indeed, she is and remains a fascinating enigma. And everyone can and may have an opinion about her. But one thing is sure: Lulu is not a member of society, she is the outsider per se. Passion makes her a taboo breaker.

It’s therefore rather embarrassing when the great German man of the theater Peter Stein admits, in an interview, that he, too, would probably have fallen under Lulu’s spell. Fantasies of a man who is getting old? Who knows...

In the meantime, this year we are "celebrating" Alban Berg. It’s the 125th anniversary of the birth and the 75th of the death of the greatest emotional 12-toner of the so-called Second Vienna School – advertised cheekily by the Wiener Festwochen as a "Party for Alban Berg."

It actually did have a high point: the performance of the Kammerkonzert (1923-1925) by 13 winds of the Ensemble intercontemporain, a group without equal, under the doyen Pierre Boulez together with the "Ur"-Viennese (Japanese) pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Such mental and musically intellectual agreement and precision between the instruments, such command of expressing the music’s essence is something rarely heard in a decade, if ever….

Alban Berg was also, however, one of the most important opera composers of the early years of the 20th century. The Vienna State Opera has functioning productions of Lulu and Wozzeck, but isn’t performing them because the departing director (and self-appointed cult figure) Ioan Holender wouldn’t let them out of the garage. What the Wiener Festwochen offered was a testimony to the poverty of the direction or perhaps of the responsible party, Stéphane Lissner, who is a jack of all trades but master at none. Because of his special talent for doing things only halfway, he has become more feared than welcomed.

This meant two long evenings at the Theater an der Wien: Wozzeck in the stylized silhouettes of the Stéphane Braunschweig – battered from Wagner’s Ring in Aix-en-Provence and in Salzburg – who managed some of the atmospheric portraits of oppression, but not all, and in the end, failed at getting the tempo of the storytelling right.

The cast was more than passable (Wozzeck: Georg Nigel, Marie: Angela Denoke), and despite some signs to the contrary, managed to rise above itself and the figures. The problem lay somewhere else: in the orchestral delivery (Mahler Chamber Orchestra) and the long over-rated conductor Daniel Harding. Everything was terribly loud and insensitive.

The orchestra laid into Lulu the same way, with no restraints, although conductor Daniele Gatti is supposedly even more experienced than Daniel Harding. The Theater an der Wien presented the "long" version of Lulu – with the third act completed so commendably by Friedrich Cerha. It can be argued that it demonstrates an intellectual and musical attentiveness, and possibly also the original ideas of Alban Berg. But (I know, the complaint is petty) taking in more than four hours of such complicated music on a weekday (please note that it was not a gala!) is a challenge.

By the way, the production was deprived of any sort of serious media coverage: Director Peter Stein had explicitly distanced himself because he had not been consulted for this supposed co-production between Lyon, the Milan Scala and Vienna. Thus, there was no "corporate identity." So much for the professionalism of Stéphane Lissner, who was responsible for the Festival…

Peter Stein tells the Lulu story in a fascinating series of imaginative pictures. I would therefore like to return to the many-layered, difficult-to-define figure of Lulu mentioned at the beginning. In Vienna, the streetwise American soprano Laura Aikin was mobilized for the part. On the surface virtuosic, despite occasional fights with the inhuman difficulties of this extreme role – but as an actress she was merely your average glamour girl. Not more, unfortunately.

The new Lulu production in the Graz Opera was quite a bit more solid. In the title role was a member of the sensational Graz ensemble, Margareta Klobucar, who managed the vocal highs and lows of this figure both confidently and with effect – while portraying a somewhat defiant child-woman who is forever looking for something new and unusual. Blond, down-to-earth and willful, in this interpretation at any rate. Even more surprising in Graz was the splendid cast all around, especially the sovereign tenor of Herbert Lippert as Alwa. The music director Johannes Fritzsch ensured that the musical course went by with no problems.

So far so good. In Graz the two-act torso version of Lulu is played, which of course also has its special appeal – especially in the staging of up-and-coming German director Johannes Erath. The stage design is simple – a concrete wall on a revolving stage – and with very few props he is able to create shocking images, as when, for example, the already-dead partners of Lulu wander around like ghosts in Dr. Schön’s salon. This is accompanied by a clever musical ruse: instead of the Parisian third act, he has created a musical frame by quoting Berg’s violin concerto. The biographical proximity is as striking as it is plausible: Lulu and the violin concerto were composed almost in parallel in Berg’s last years, and they also mirror Tannhäuser’s neurotically divided image of women: Elisabeth and Venus…

It seems that Lulu is ever popular: the Salzburg Festival also plans a new production (August 1, 4, 6, 11, 14 and 17). In the Gérard Mortier era, they put on an exemplary version in three acts. And the background of this upcoming production is not without interest: Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt has wanted to do this opera for years. The Festival hesitated for a long time – maybe too long: Harnoncourt is probably no longer physically up to the long rehearsal period. It’s a great pity. On the other hand, it will be interesting, maybe even fascinating to see Lulu in a staging done from the perspective of a woman – until now it has only been men who have groped around it.

But so far the dedicated Vera Nemirowa has only distinguished herself in Vienna as a pilot in crash landings. First with Eugen Onegin, which was at most only mediocre, scenically stripped clean and technically meek, and then last autumn with the incomparable Macbeth disaster. Its planned Festwochen performances were cancelled (see the opera column Half Tones, this page). Maybe we should wait eagerly for the Lulu interpretation in Salzburg by the popular coloratura Patricia Petibon – last spring at the Geneva Opera she sang Lulu naked… whether that adds anything?


Translated by Cynthia Peck.

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