Saturday, May 27, 2023

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), William Kentridge (stage director), Matthew Diamond (director) Lulu / 2015 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

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.
      Similarly, composer Alban Berg found the perverse sexual and social actions of Wedekind’s two Lulu plays, Der Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büche der Pandora (1903) quite perfectly summed up the outrageous mores and extravagant behaviors of his Weimar Republic.

     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, accordingly, 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.

Berg, far more than Pabst, convinces us of Lulu’s immoral madness, revealing her unfeeling consummation of her lovers: her physician husband; her painter companion (Paul Groves); the newspaper owner Dr. Schön (Johan Reuter)— the only man she personally kills, and perhaps the only man she truly loves—Schön’s son Alwa (Daniel Brenna), and Countess Gerschwitz. Yet he also, more successfully than Pabst, shows us how Lulu out of true love through the limited views of each of her lovers and is manipulated by them. The tragedy of this work, much as in Berlin Alexanderplatz, emanates from the reality of  how much these figures use each other purely for for their needs, ending in a necessary bloodbath—which, on a far larger scale, is precisely what happened, of course to the whole of Germany under Hitler’s control. The only major figure of this opera to survive is the man who may have fathered her and more definitely “created” her—through his lessons on how to survive as a prostitute-courtesan—is Schigolch (Franz Grundheber), who like Alexanderplatz’s Franz Bieberkopf survives, perhaps, only
because he has become, by work’s end, utterly insignificant.
     Indeed, both Berg and Wedekind, more than Pabst, reveal that everyone in this tragedy, including Lulu, by the time of her death, has become meaningless. Each of them simply desires—revealed in Kentridge’s expressionist emblems by Lulu’s and other characters’ donning of outsized white gloves—without offering much in return. Lulu’s world is one in which nearly everyone is seeking love, money, and fame without sacrificing themselves. In the end, only two characters actually are willing to give of themselves, and both of them are women.

Countess Gerschwitz allows herself to be imprisoned in Lulu’s stead, and attempts to raise money to help her friend-lover to survive and to escape. And even after she is rejected endlessly by the object of her desire, she returns to Lulu’s hovel, only to be killed by the Jack the Ripper-like figure who destroys her after killing Lulu.
     Lulu, strangely enough, offers up not only her body, but is willing, at least in Schön’s case, to give up her heart; and ultimately, she prostitutes herself to save the starving Alwa and Schigolch.    
     Although the males of the tale strut the stage and destroy themselves out of what they describe as Lulu’s betrayals, they give nothing in return except financial support, which is always proffered as a transaction instead of presented as an outright gift. Although Lulu may pretend that some of her relationships have nothing to do with prostitution, in the society that Berg and Wedekind present, all human relationships seem to be built on transactional involvements. Even Gerschwitz hopes that her money might buy her love.

     In such a world, everything ends where it has begun, with someone demanding something from or swindling something from the other.  Berg emphasizes this in not only through the predetermined musical structures of his twelve-tone system, but in the palindromic system of the work’s structural events. Not only to characters intentionally asked to portray others—Schön becomes Jack the Ripper, the Painter is the African Prince, etc.—but everything happens again and again. As if they were hamsters on a treadmill, the men Lulu encounters destroy themselves and each other, like late 19th century dualists who fight for something that they do not truly control, but rather controls them. So Berg makes clear is the society in which he lives—extending back even to Wedekind’s pre-World War drama—is doomed to destruction.
     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
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (Novembr 2015).

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