Saturday, 31 March 2012

Stefan Herheim's dithryrambic Lulu


Semperoper Dresden, 25/03/2012

Gisela Stille | Lulu
Terje Stensvold | Dr. Schön, Jack the Ripper
Christa Mayer | Countess Geschwitz
Jürgen Müller | Alwa
Ketil Hugaas | Schigolch
Painter, Negro | Nils Harald Sødal
Barbara Senator | Dresser, Schoolboy, Groom
Professor of Medicine, Banker, Professor | Joachim Goltz
Aaron Pegram | Prince, Manservant, Marquis
Almas Švilpa | Animal Tamer, Athlete, Theatre Manager
Romy Petrick | Fifteen-year-old girl
Angela Liebold | Her mother
Sabine Brohm | Artist
Ilhun Jung | Journalist
Allen Boxer | Servant

Cornelius Meister | Conductor
Stefan Herheim | Director


This Lulu is such a technically elaborate spectacle that I would have happily paid more for my ticket just so that the stagehands might have been afforded American rates of pay for the evening. I am however going to pass over the density of detail for two reasons: very few stones are left unturned in La Cieca’s closely observed deconstruction of the deconstruction, which is worth a read; and secondly, I want to cut to the chase of some problems I had. It won’t quite trommeln down but I’m afraid I do have some rain to sprinkle on Herheim’s parade.


The first director to stage this opera was of course Berg himself and though I think people exaggerate the quantity of his stage directions, you don’t have to flick through many pages in the score to see an absurd level of detail leaping off the page. Take for example our first sighting of Dr Schön, ‘in jacket, hat in hand, sitting at the foot of the ottoman’. We might as well stick the work on a fast train to ossification if that were all we ever saw. But then characters and musical material are integrated are in this opera like no other, and I am rather boringly in agreement with George Perle and others on things like entrances and exits, which isn’t to say that Regie shouldn’t go against that, just that to do it self-consciously with no further comment doesn’t really cut it. It pains me to write that there was some lingering around in this production where I didn’t even detect that, though in fairness Herheim is more or less ‘faithful’ a good nine-tenths of the time (more on this later).

About that further comment: Lulu is a tricky nut for Regie to crack because Berg’s stage directions, for all their fastidiousness, more often than not hit the Nagel on the Kopf (more on this later as well). In Act I scene 2 of this production I seem to remember that Lulu, holding the Painter’s brush, grazes Schön’s hand instead of wiping blood from it. Herheim’s Personenregie sustains the ambivalence here – it could be deliberate, accidental or subconsciously motivated – but this isn’t deconstruction. Apart from variety – which, yes, is always welcome – what does it achieve that Berg’s direction doesn’t? And then there’s the business with the ghost clowns. Their little routine was entertaining enough and the idea comes into its own with the doubling, but I was concerned about Lulu recognizing them. As Karl Kraus wrote, ‘it is with blissful unawareness that Lulu innocently dispatches men like a frog catches flies’ (my translation), and the recognition moments weren’t radically conceived enough for this thought to leave my mind. There are only the two important ones: once Schön is made up and sent to the gallery, Lulu looks up at him and pulls a face (my reaction: indifference), and after the Painter’s death Lulu’s ‘Nur Geduld, Kinder!’ is addressed to the clowns who are raring to break down the door to collect the corpse, which was gimmicky.

Alwa’s furious scribbling of ‘Er nimmt mich mit nach Afrika’ was effective, as La C points out, but very soon after that I felt the device had run its course. The metatheatrical idea of drawing attention to the contrived artwork is after all already present in the text and music, with Berg making it clear enough that Alwa’s ‘interessante Oper’ is precisely the one we are seeing. Herheim however lays it thick all the way to Act III and there were many moments when I was like ‘hang on, this bit isn’t artifice’ – trust me, massive gaffes were committed here – and desperately wished he would give it a rest. He did exactly the same thing with his onstage Puccini in Madama Butterfly and it worked more convincingly there.

So now I’m going to try to articulate what I think Herheim was doing and why it came from a well-intentioned place but is misguided. As I wrote above, Herheim rarely strays from Berg’s stage directions in the sense that he nearly always observes what Berg specifies (one sees this in the Act II scene 1 farce). But anything that isn’t expressively forbidden in the score he considers fair game (one also sees this in the Act II scene 1 farce). So far so incisive Regie. But whether consciously intended or not, it appeared to me as trying to outwit Berg and Wedekind, even confound them – and not merely to show off; there’s no arrogance to it. I read it very much as a manifesto: this is what can be done, now run with it.

It’s not that Herheim is running in entirely the wrong direction. This production is no failure, and the overstuffing works on some levels – Geschwitz’s memorable line ‘this is the last evening I spend in this company’ resounds throughout the opera and already by the end of Act I all you want is just to get away from these people. But taken as a whole it is overwhelmingly underwhelming. And so to bring this to the point of what is missing, which really did surprise me: aside from getting the opera’s quasi-palindromic dramatic structure, there’s no command of its musico-structural paraphernalia. All very well and predictable for a twelve-tone geek to say that, I hear you tutting. But this is a special case which goes beyond serial method.

In 1989 George Perle published a provocative article titled ‘Some thoughts on an ideal production of Lulu’. I disagree with bits of it, particularly his characterization of Act I scene 2, and the general thrust (an appeal for Werktreue). But his analytical ammunition is what concerns us (and here it must be pointed out that those of us who study Lulu are greatly indebted to his body of work), namely the observation, recycled for these purposes from his earlier work, that at the beginning of Act II scene I Lulu acknowledges Geschwitz on a note (B natural) which could only have come from the Countess’s trope. Berg backs this up with a stage direction (auf sie hinweisend means ‘pointing to her’):



Perle puts the following question: ‘In the context of the musical language of Lulu can such a subtle musical conceit have any meaning for anyone other than the scholar analyzing the score in the privacy of his studio?’ (His answer, just in case there were any doubt, is an emphatic yes – and one with which I agree). But what Perle neglects to mention is that virtually all the numbers in Lulu are referential in some way (Schigolch of course featuring prominently), and in meaningful ways that Berg intended but didn’t necessarily write into the stage directions (this auf sie hinweisend is actually very much an exception). When Lulu tries to hush the punch-drunk Alwa with ‘I shot your father’ he seems carefree and replies ‘I love you no less because of that’. But in his Hymne, which follows shortly after, there’s sophisticated musical coding going on to suggest that he has some insight into his predicament (I will spare you the technical details but it goes back to his father’s death). Hidden signs and secret meanings are a Berg scholar’s stock-in-trade, so this – and much more – is all there in the literature. To bring things back to direction, it also fair game for Regie; indeed, license is begging to be taken. And yet Herheim plays this number pretty much straight, portraying Alwa as some deluded wretch and saving it all for the famous line (‘Ist das noch…’, and yes, he does collapse into it). In Act III it also irritated me that Herheim reduces him to a halfwit.

There is a magnificent as-yet-unrealized Konzept which one day will perhaps make a close reading of the score, taking account of all these details and offering essential insights into the key figures of Alwa, Schigolch and Geschwitz. Herheim’s, for all its superficial brilliance, is not that Konzept.

A few notes on the performances: Gisela Stille’s Lulu is certainly up there in the Stratasphere and as for her effortless response to Berg’s vocal demands, well, I can only resort to Kraus’s frogs and flies. She’s there, rooted in the action, and yet removed; a stage manner – and way with the music – that’s observantly unobservant, if that makes sense. Don’t miss the chance to see her sing this role.

Boulez lookalike Terje Stensvold was a more than dependable Schön, and were it not for Stille and Herheim’s spectacle I would have paid more attention to him. A few moments stood out though: his taunting of Nils Harald Sødal’s Painter, and his ‘Das war ein Stück Arbeit!’, which was memorable and yet not played to the gallery.

Jürgen Müller’s Alwa was fine despite some vocal strain, and Ketil Hugaas a properly wheezing Schigolch. Christa Mayer is an ideal Geschwitz and while I sensed Herheim was wary of making her the one authentic character in the opera I wished he’d given her more to do. All the other roles were good.

The Sächsische Staatskapelle under Cornelius Meister performed as strongly as the cast, but while I’ve never heard Meister lead anything other than a good performance I’ve come to expect more of him. There was however the sonata’s expositional close that we hear first in Act I scene 2 – i.e. the haunting lento theme which is practically the only hummable material in the entire opera. It’s a theme closely associated with Lulu and Schön, recurs at important points in the action, and tends to get milked. Boulez couldn’t do sentimental if he tried, but even he just gives it a straightforward gloss of pointed fullness. Meister’s take I could write an entire review about, but will simply note here that it seemed to stand outside of the opera, making for a special moment on hearing it and something which one dwells on for days after.


Eberhard Kloke’s ‘new’ Act III completion also requires its own post, but suffice it to say I was not impressed.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Zwoelftoener, could you please clarify, what Berg meant with the Hymne (some musical details would be very helpful). On La Cieca's web site I also read, that you hear the gun shot chords… Some help here would be very appreciated.

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