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Monumental new staging of Berg's masterpiece

Lyric Opera of Chicago
11/07/2008 -  and November 10, 15, 19, 22, 25, 30
Alban Berg: Lulu
Marlis Petersen (Lulu), Wolfgang Schöne (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper), William Burden (Alwa), Thomas Hammons (Schigolch), Jill Grove (Countess Geschwitz), Jan Buchwald (Animal Tamer/Athlete), Scott Ramsay (Painter/Sailor), Rodell Rosel (Prince/Manservant/Marquis), Buffy Baggott (Wardrobe Mistress/Schoolboy/Groom), Bradley Garvin (Theater Director/Banker), Angela Mannino (Fifteen-year-old-girl), Kathryn Leemhuis (Lady Artisan), Katherine Lerner (Mother), Corey Crider (Journalist), Paul Corona (Servant), Craig Irvin (Professor of Medicine/Professor), Ronald Watkins (Police Commissioner)
Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)
Paul Curran (director), David Jacques (lighting designer), Kevin Knight (set/costume designer), John Boesche (projection designer), Richard Jarvie (wig/makeup designer)

Marlis Petersen (Lulu), Wolfgang Schöne (Dr. Schön)
(© Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago)

Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Alban Berg's Lulu accomplishes that rare operatic trinity of great singing, great staging, and credible acting. Throw in some sex and a series of violent deaths, and, despite a not-quite-perfect soprano as Lulu, Lyric has a hit production on its hands that will keep both the casual and passionate opera lover in their seats.

Scottish stage director Paul Curran's vision for this Lulu is gratuitous, grotesque, and accurate. Except for the Countess Geschwitz, Lulu's love interests desire her for her body and her money. To avoid the rampant sexuality in the action would be intellectually dishonest—Curran makes clear that sex is everywhere in the title character's world. Nor does the Scottish director shy away from violence. While the in-your-face shock value may make some squirm, Curran ensures that the audience is privy to the reality of Lulu's environment not through reports from the other characters, but from the physical representation of the violence on stage. Be prepared: there is blood, and there are guts. But after all, this is Lulu.

Yet the success of the performance of Lulu rests more so on the portrayal of its title character than any other aspect of the piece. Enter German soprano Marlis Petersen, whom many believe to be the foremost Lulu currently on stage. If you're looking for seduction, look elsewhere—Petersen's Lulu eschews sensuality in her interactions with the various lovers she has. She hopped about the stage, flailed her legs around (and apart), and was coarse—hers is a grotesque, decadent, almost one-dimensional portrayal that is, nevertheless, appropriate for the reality of a character that is often merely a realization of how the people around her want her to be. In the final act, however, Petersen dove deeper into the role. As Lulu's finances dwindle and she is blackmailed into prostitution, the internal weakness and fear that accompany the change in lifestyle can sometimes seem disingenuous. Petersen, though, believably reveals a much more honest, nuanced side of the tragic heroine, showing her new vulnerability and loneliness with smaller gestures that conveyed much pathos despite the lack of intimacy audiences are wont to feel in the Civic Opera House.

The color of Petersen's voice does not set her apart from others Lulus past and present, and the instrument would perhaps be better suited for a house not quite as vast as Lyric's. She does, however, show great flexibility and ease in the often painstakingly high tessitura Berg sets out for the title character. Easily navigating Berg's coloratura, Petersen remained vocally fresh even in the final act of this nearly three and a half hour work.

In the roles of Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper, we find German bass-baritone Wolfgang Schöne, whose career spans several decades and doesn't appear to be slowing down. Schöne's voice is not a beautiful one, but the agility and ease with which he sings the pair of roles is astounding. In a role that calls for a true heldenbariton, Schöne escapes the stand-and-sing archetype often found in Wagner and Strauss characters of the same mold. Maintaining a demanding vocal performance with shocking ease, Schöne also displays a formidable stage presence, showing just enough restraint in his dramatic confrontation with the painter (tenor Scott Ramsay) in the first act and enough vulnerability to Lulu in the second to make the character believable.

As Alwa, tenor William Burden has a voice that has remained remarkably clear and beautiful over the years. Vocally, one might find his instrument a bit light for the role, but Burden rose to the challenge of piercing through some of the heaviest parts of Berg's orchestration time and time again. His Act II monologue in praise of Lulu's body was carefully and gorgeously sung, and his voice soared over the most densely composed sections of Berg's score in the final act.

Mezzo Jill Grove as Countess Geschwitz gave a fine rendition, both vocally and theatrically, to her important role. As Geschwitz, one of the few characters in the opera genuinely concerned for Lulu, Grove brought a noble, restrained approach to the woman, even as it brought her to her ruin in Act III. American bass-baritone Thomas Hammons' booming voice brought a blustery power to the role of Schigolch, the father-figure in Lulu's life. Also of particular note was the young tenor Rodell Rosel, who sang the three roles of the Prince, Manservant, and Marquis. Awkward in the first act, comical in the second, and menacing in the third, Rodell has a gifted theatrical presence and a clear, ringing top to his voice.

Perhaps the most important performance of the night came from Sir Andrew Davis, whose reading of Berg's score was top-notch. In the most dramatic moments of the opera, Davis kept the orchestra right on edge, and rightfully brought forth the lyricism in Berg's composition that is all too often overlooked. More importantly, Davis both knew and had confidence in his singers. Paying close attention to them at all times, he was visually in tune with them at every note, releasing the powerful Lyric orchestra to fortissimo when called for and drawing it back at the more subtle moments. His careful rendering of the Act I confrontation between the Painter and Dr. Schön revealed a foreboding atmosphere long before Berg's libretto lets the audience in on what is about to occur.

Finally, Lyric has found a winner in the set design of Kevin Knight. The production is visually one of the most stunning that the company has presented in years: it is above all a modern production, but with period costumes and decoration. No space is wasted. Framed paintings cover the expansive bright walls in the first act at the painter's studio, while Dr. Schön's home in the second act is a beautiful raked drawing room with decadent drapery and period furniture that double as safe hiding places for Lulu's myriad male (and female) callers. Credit also must go to lighting designer David Jacques who creatively bathes the sets in bright schemes while dealing with sometimes awkward temporal changes in the libretto. Projection designer John Boesche brings technology and elegance to the production, using film portrayals on the curtain-turned-screen that toy with the audience's reality of what they are seeing on stage.

Ultimately, the greatness of Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Lulu is not found in the performance of Marlis Petersen alone. The singers around her, the blatant yet necessary portrayal of sex and violence, and the stunning visuals provided both by the physical production and the technical effects of the design team all combine to create an experience the likes of which has set a new standard for productions of Berg's masterpiece for many years to come.

Paul Wooley



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