Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Douglas Messerli | "Desire Severed from Reward" (on Alban Berg's Lulu as presented by the MET Opera)
desire severed from reward
by Douglas Messerli
Alban Berg ( libretto, based on Frank Wedekind’s Der Erdgeist and Die Büche der Pandora; and composer) Lulu / live H.D. broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York / the production I saw was in Los Angles at the Century City theaters with Howard N. Fox and Pablo on November 21, 2015
The plays of Frank Wedekind, in their combination of naturalist issues and Expressionistic methods—despite their often somewhat clumsy plots and confusing character delineation—seem to be continually ahead of their times, finding major re-adaption within later theatrical conventions. The recent musical adaptions of his Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening) of 1891, for example, reveal that the social-sexual issues of young adolescents at the turn of the 20th century have much in common with the problems of today’s 21st century youths (see above).
Alas, because of the Nationalist Socialist rise and Berg’s early death, the opera was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1935, and would not receive its full three-act version, completed by Friedrich Cerha, until 1979. But that fact, along with Berg’s innovative use of the musical twelve-tone system, has perhaps helped to make Berg’s version appear far more modern and ahead of its time than even G. W. Pabst’s credible and quite shocking Weimer- period film, Pandora’s Box, of 1928, with the very memorable Louise Brooks (see My Year 2001).
Today, with the India-ink projected images by artist William Kentridge and the consummate singing and acting skills of Marlis Petersen as Lulu (who has declared this as the last of her Lulu performances), the Metropolitan Opera production which my companion Howard and my designer Pablo, saw with me in a high definition live production this past Saturday—even while placing the work very much establishing this work as part of the years just prior to Hitler’s rise—seemed fresher than ever, as if Wedekind’s dialogue might be playing out in the headlines of today’s tabloids.
Berg’s Brechtian prologue, his reorientation of the work to balance Lulu’s lesbian encounters with the series of male lovers whom she destroys, and his emphasis on the play’s clearly feminist themes (Pabst omits most of Lulu’s later relationship with Countess Gerschwitz [Susan Graham], and, according, cuts her declaration that she will return to school and fight for women’s rights), along with his closer loyalty to the original plays throughout, which, although sometimes clutters up the landscape, nonetheless further modernizes the work, revealing the utter audacity of Wedekind’s originals.
If by opera’s end, Lulu has become a hag, of so little value in the thinking of her murderer, that she is better off dead, Lulu, unlike any other figure in the work—except perhaps for Gerschwitz—finally is willing to offer herself freely, without financial, societal, or even sexual ties. Human needs and desire have finally been severed from reward.
Los Angeles, November 24, 2015