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What's the Big Idea?

August 12, 2010

Patricia Petibon and Michael Volle in Lulu Photo: Monika Rittershaus/Salzburg Festival 2010

On Wednesday in Salzburg I got a chance to see what has so far been the most challenging and confounding opera production of this year’s festival, Vera Nemirova’s take on Alban Berg’s Lulu. Just about everything you’d expect from Lulu both musically and theatrically is thwarted in this staging. And while I’m not sure if that makes it good or bad, it certainly makes it thought provoking. For an opera that already stands out in the standard repertoire musically, Nemirova’s attempt to challenge assumptions about the work risk making it even more alienating. The staging itself is highly static and minimal. Almost all props and set elements are removed in favor of a few huge painted backdrops by German artist Daniel Richter. Richter’s dayglo colored primitive figure drawings are interesting to look at but come nowhere near carrying the lack of activity on stage otherwise. Much of the rest of the action takes place near the foot of the stage involving little more than performer interaction. There is a large black lacquered triangle with several doors that serves a “Laugh-In” style peep show for Act II and is upended as a sort of hovel for the characters in the second scene of Act III. All of this is upended in the first scene of Act III which takes place almost entirely in the auditorium with the Paris party attendees tossing fake 500 Euro notes in the air and the vocalists sliding in between rows and walking atop partitions in the theater all under the spin of several mirror balls. And while this was an interesting change of events, it comes quite late in a very long show.

Probably the most frustrating thing though is the acting performance of star Patricia Petibon in the title role. The petite coloratura soprano has recently taken up the role and vocally she’s strong, even if I wasn’t always crazy about her German diction. However, she almost always seems emotionally uninvolved from the rest of the cast. Not that her Lulu was self-absorbed, she just seemed uninterested in anything going on around her one way or another. I debated for a while if this was a flaw, but I later decided that this may have been Nemirova’s intentional directorial choice. In the extensive program notes, Nemirova argues that Lulu represents a mythical figure. She points out the relationship between Lulu and Pandora in the original theatrical source materials the opera is based on and suggests the Lulu is a primal force bringing a world of ills into existence as a sort of bridge between the Gods and Humanity. This is strictly in keeping with the Salzburg Festival’s theme this year about the interaction between Gods and Man resulting in tragedy, particularly in Greek Mythology. To drive this idea home, there are moments where the audience is asked to identify with characters other than Lulu. In addition to the Act II party scene, the conclusion of Act I features a huge mirror backdrop that reflects the audience as the house lights are turned up during the scene when Lulu forces Dr. Schön to sign the message breaking off his engagement. The gesture implies a unity between himself and the audience in the wake of Lulu’s force of nature.

I should caution, though, that Nemirova does not see this as simply a “war-between-the-sexes” issue with women representing Earth/Nature/Instinct and men representing Reason/Logic/Order. There’s even some arguably feminist alterations in the plot with Countess Geshwitz escaping Jack the Ripper in the final scene to actually do what she says she plans to do, go to University and fight for the rights of women. Still this sort of detached Lulu who is neither exactly femme fatale or capricious woman-child does come off as blank and uninvolved at times. Despite Petibon and Nemirova’s best intentions I’ll admit I found the first two acts pretty dull and it wasn’t until the rapid expansion of the performance area in Act III that I really began to feel involved in any way. That’s not to say there weren’t some remarkable vocal performances among the cast. The consistently excellent Michael Volle made the most of the space he was given with Dr. Schön. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s final moments as the Countess Geschwitz were some of the most beautifully sung of the whole evening. Thomas Johannes Mayer’s turns as both Animal Trainer and Athlete pretty much grabbed the audience as much as they did Lulu.

This unexpected approach in the staging was paralleled musically in some ways. The Vienna Philharmonic gave a superb performance under Marc Albrecht, but one that sounded nearly Romantic given the circumstances. Many of the rough edges of Berg’s score seem polished to an intense shine creating an almost pretty sound at times. Which I guess is only fair. If it’s legitimate to make Salome and Elektra sound like they were written by Schoenberg in a live performance, I suppose having Berg sound like Der Rosenkavalier is within reason. It just wasn’t what one might normally expect. And while I believe there is a value in confounding expectations, I’m also not convinced Nemirova’s Lulu achieves enough of what it sets out to do. There are some excellent ideas here, but not enough of them come to fruition over the course of five hours to make the show a real success.


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