BWW Review: A LULU of an Evening at the Met with Soprano Petersen in the New Kentridge Production

Who or what is Lulu, the eponymous character in Alban Berg's landmark atonal opera? Is she saint or sinner? Femme fatale or victim? Put-upon or mistress of her own fate? Whatever else she might be, she is fabulous in the hands of German soprano Marlis Petersen, as the center of William Kentridge's vibrant, thrilling new production at the Met.

Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Johan Reuter as Jack the Ripper.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Petersen announced before the opening night that she would be retiring the role after this run at the Met. In one way, it seems a puzzlement, because she seems to sing it as easily as she does Mozart (she was a formidable Susanna in the Met's new LE NOZZE DI FIGARO last year) and has become the go-to Lulu in the world of opera. Maybe that's the problem: The only way to get out of Lulu's grasp, as the major characters in the opera discover, is to get away from her. Rather than dying--as many of the opera's characters do--dropping the role is a way for Petersen to move on with her career.

Despite the apparent ease with which Petersen tosses off the title role, LULU is one of the few works that evokes terror into the hearts of opera-goers. Written in 12-tone style, it has a reputation for sending audiences--even those who like Berg's other opera, WOZZECK--running for the exits. As imagined by South African artist-director William Kentridge and his team, who brought a similar sensibility and sensitivity, not to mention art, to Shostakovich's THE NOSE a few seasons ago at the Met, it is nothing of the sort. It is a visually dazzling world where the music is, yes, demanding, but where the challenges are within our grasp.

(Berg never finished the opera himself, leaving part of the third, crucial act unorchestrated when he died suddenly at the age of 50; it was finally completed by Friedrich Cerha and premiered in 1979--44 years after Berg's death. This is the version performed today.)

Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Daniel Brenna as Alwa.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Kentridge, working with co-director Luc De Wit, scenic designer Sabine Theunissen, projection designer Catherine Meyburgh, costume designer Greta Goiris and lighting designer Urs Schoenebaum, has created a living, breathing work of art that complements and embodies the opera. Of course, it is Kentridge's woodcut art and inkblots, in the German Expressionist style, that set the tone of the opera from the very start, where the Animal Tamer (Martin Winkler) deftly introduces the creatures of the menagerie, with Lulu as the serpent.

Kentridge says in the program notes that he sees the story as being about the fragility or impossibility of desire. Indeed, every one of the men (and a woman), has an idea about who Lulu is. So does the audience, whether we realize it or not. We first see her (or, rather, think so), sitting on stage at a grand piano, with her black, stylized 'Louise Brooks' bob (named for the silent film star), as the character is frequently portrayed. Except...this is not Lulu but a doppleganger, because the Lulu we meet--and meet over and over again--has Petersen's brown hair and a more natural look.

Susan Graham as Countess Geschwitz.
Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

Actually, the men don't have it any easier: They can't live up to Lulu's expectations--not even limited ones--and most of them die.

There is Dr. Schoen, the Rupert Murdock of his time, who found her on the streets as a teenager, gave her an education and made her his mistress but wants a more suitable match as a wife; later, after he decided to marry Lulu, he finds her with his weakling son, Alwa, and demands that she shoot herself to protect his reputation; instead, she kills him and is imprisoned. At the end of the opera, when Lulu has returned to the streets, he morphs into her final customer, Jack the Ripper. The two characters are brilliantly personified by the full-bodied bass-baritone of Danish Johan Reuter, last heard hereabouts as Barak the Dyer in DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN.

Alwa, sung by tenor American Daniel Brenna in his Met debut, is compelling as the pathetic composer, who becomes dependent on her, though he knows she is out of his reach. (With his big voice, it's not surprising to read that Brenna will be singing the leading role in SIEGFRIED shortly.) Then there's the mysterious, old Schigolch, sung by baritone Franz Grundheber, a friend of Lulu, who may be her father or simply a former lover, but fills neither role for her. American tenor Paul Groves, fervently portraying the dual roles of the Painter, who tries to capture Lulu on canvas, in a German Expressionist-style portrait, and the African Prince, one of her first clients as a prostitute. Along with his role as the Animal Tamer, bass-baritone Martin Winkler also did exceedingly well as the Acrobat, who tries to blackmail Lulu, while bass-baritone James Courtney does good work as the Physician (Lulu's first husband) and in other roles.

Finally, there is the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, wonderfully sung and acted by mezzo Susan Graham. (It's good to hear a singer still in her prime in a role that often goes to mezzos who have left their best years behind them.) She is willing to give all for Lulu, including contracting cholera so she can take her place in the hospital during her jail term, but gets little in return. Together with her soaring line, Graham's acting brought a poignancy that was unshakeable.

A final shout-out must go to rising mezzo Elizabeth DeShong, who brought her rich voice to a trio of vivid characterizations: the Wardrobe Mistress, the Schoolboy and the Page.

German conductor Lothar Koenigs, who took over the production's first performances when Music Director James Levine bowed out on short notice, led a brilliant, thrusting performance from the Met Orchestra. Together, they brought all the musical lines of the characters together in a challenging, yet eminently listenable, performance that should not be missed.


The November 21 matinee of LULU, at 12:30 pm ET, will be transmitted worldwide as part of the tenth season of the Met's Live in HD series, which now reaches more than 2,000 movie theaters in 70 countries around the world. For more information, click here.

A delayed radio broadcast will be heard at 1 pm ET, on February 27, 2016 on the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network. For more information, click here.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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